Americans are driving less, but Westerners still love their cars


Fellow Westerners: We are pathetic! Sure, we’ve got our redeeming qualities, I guess, but one of them is not our ability to mitigate the environmental impact of our commute. We Westerners are a tribe of steering-wheel-gripped, fossil-fuel-burning, trapped-in-a-tin-can-in-traffic creatures, guided along highways not by eyes and mind, but by the tinny, seductive voice of our iPhone GPS.

At least that’s what the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests, which I will present to you shortly, in groovy graphic form, if you can keep your eyes off the road for that long. In the meantime, you may have already heard the good news: We’re getting better. Americans collectively are driving a little bit less, even those of us in most of the rural West, where the combustion engine is king. And, says the advocacy group that published the findings, the wane in our driving addiction has little to do with the fact that we can’t afford it, thanks to the crappy economy.

The much-touted report, put out in August by the USPIRG Education Fund, found that residents of all but seven states drove less in 2011 than they did in 2005. Coloradans on average drove a whopping 11.4 percent – or 1,172 miles – less, while Arizonans cut their time in traffic by nearly 9 percent. Even drivers in wide-open Wyoming, the most automobile-happy state of all, decreased their annual mileage by 8.5 percent.

When the Driving Boom first stalled out in the middle of the last decade, it appeared to be the direct result of increasing gas prices followed by economic collapse. People simply could no longer afford to drive as much as they had before. As the economy revved back up, so too, it seemed, would our collective vehicles. And in some isolated cases, that’s exactly what happened: North Dakotans drive more miles now than they ever have before, and 12 percent more than in 2005. Yet that’s a special case, surely driven by the oil and gas boom and all the extra driving the boom requires.

Meanwhile, even as other states have clawed their way back from the Recession’s abyss, they haven’t gotten back in the station wagon. Indeed, the Recession appears to have had the effect of decoupling mileage driven from the economy. Nevada, for example, is the only other Western state where driving has increased since 2005, and they were hit harder than anyone by the economic collapse. New Mexico’s economy has flatlined, but the impact to mileage driven has been negligible. Meanwhile, in stronger economies like Utah, folks continue to drive fewer and fewer miles.

Western states, thanks to their spread out populations, are still the most car-happy. But driving is on the decline everywhere except in North Dakota and Nevada. Source: USPIRG.

USPIRG attributes the Driving Boom’s bust largely to technology. Thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, more people are working from home than ever before, so they don’t need to drive anywhere. Meanwhile, smart phone apps make using public transit – not to mention car- and bike-sharing services – a lot easier and more convenient. As for the West, some places saw a significant buildup of public transit between 2005 and 2011. Salt Lake City and Denver significantly expanded their light and commuter rail services during that time, and the Albuquerque and Santa Fe Railrunner started offering an alternative to driving in 2006. Phoenix put in a very well-ridden light rail, too.

But the West’s masses aren’t exactly sending their cars to the junkyards. The latest Census data on commuting shows that commuters continue to prefer the solo drive to carpooling, transit or biking or walking (even though that’s slowly changing). Inspired by the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Quality Communities, I dug into the Census data and threw the applicable stuff into info.gram so that you, too, can see how your community stacks up in the race (or crawl?) to get out of those cars and onto the trains, bikes and buses. Click on one of the circles above the graphs and then move your mouse over the graphs to see how residents of Western states and cities (along with some other states, as a comparison) get to work. (If you don't see the graphs, click on the links below).

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News. He Tweets @jonnypeace.

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