With economic recovery underway, why are Americans still driving less?

From the AJC’s Economy better, but we still drive less by Ariel Hart:

A national report released last week adds to a growing body of evidence of something nearly inconceivable to car-bound Atlantans. Not only has driving failed to increase with the economy’s recovery; it’s falling more.

No one knows for sure what’s going on. The suspects are legion: high gas prices; teleworking; a recession so bad it left psychic scars, or a recovery just weak on jobs.

Or, some go so far to believe, a shift in culture away from cars.

I’ve written regularly about the sustained decline in driving. The total number of vehicle miles traveled has remained relatively constant for the past several years, despite an increase of 1 percent or so each year in the number of Americans of driving age.

The excellent piece in the AJC quoted above was prompted by the study of congestion in the new Urban Mobility Report released last week by the Texas Transportation Institute. The data for Atlanta shows that from 2006 to 2011, the number of miles traveled per day on freeways increased by close to 3 percent, but the daily VMT on arterial streets actually declined by about the same amount. The excess costs caused by congestion have actually declined, and the total delays have declined too.

Jacksonville has showed declines in both freeway and arterial travel in the 2006 to 2011 time period.

Amid speculation that we are experiencing a true cultural shift in which Americans are relying less on single occupancy car travel, there’s an argument to be made that these trends are simply a manifestation of a generally weak economy and the fallout from a recession that had no modern precedents. Again from the AJC:

Not everyone is sure there’s big permanent change afoot, especially in Atlanta.

“Culture shift was the first thing that came to my mind too,” concedes Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University’s Robinson College of Business. “But what is the one activity that has not recovered? There is one clear activity that has not recovered: construction.” Construction is a driving-heavy industry, he notes, and the timing coincides better with Atlanta’s 2006 driving drop-off. He agrees a lot of factors are likely at work. But carpenters can’t telework. If construction comes back, Dhawan says, just wait for the traffic.

Here’s the most recent graph from Calculated Risk regarding total VMT: