Manage for a reduction in vehicle miles of travel


States should include a reduction in vehicle miles of travel (VMT) among the goals for their DOTs. Over the past fifty years, daily VMT in the United States has increased at about three times the rate of growth in population. Some of this rapid growth in vehicle travel has been the result of increased prosperity and increased mobility, both of which have been positive trends. However, much of the growth in travel actually has little to do with the economics of prosperity, but rather is associated with sprawling suburban and exurban development patterns that have increased the amount of daily household travel without increasing access to jobs, essential services, or other important destinations.

During this time, state DOTs have worked hard to provide the expanded roadway systems needed to service the spread of low-density development. This approach to transportation policy is known as "project and provide." The transportation agency projects traffic growth and attempts to provide new capacity to serve it. As it turns out, much of this "project and provide" approach to capacity investment has been counterproductive, serving to subsidize and accelerate the sprawl development pattern while failing to reduce congestion or delay – the putative purpose of highway capacity programs in the first place. Now, as energy prices, greenhouse gas emissions, and economic costs of roadway construction have become public policy issues in every state, the inexorable growth in per capita and household VMT no longer seems like a desirable trend.

As a result, states are beginning to evaluate policy frameworks that might begin to slow or even reverse the growth in VMT while still maintaining high levels of transportation system function, access, and connectivity. Interestingly, at the same time this policy approach is attracting attention from transportation professionals, the VMT trend has been attenuating for the first time since World War II. While this is in part related to recent unstable fuel costs, VMT growth rates across the United States had actually begun to drop as early as 2005 in most states before going into the actual decline seen in 2006 and 2007. This offers a unique opportunity to initiate VMT growth policies in conjunction with state transportation programs to address energy, climate change, and economic objectives.

States cannot address the energy and climate change policy environment that they face in the next decade without tackling transportation energy use. While most efforts to curb greenhouse gases focuses on vehicle efficiency and cleaner fuels, even if the most stringent fuel efficiency proposals under consideration are enacted, vehicle emissions still would be 34 percent above 1990 levels in 2030, far from the 60 to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 required for climate protection.

Lowering the number of miles traveled on the state’s roads will, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emission, also save maintenance expenses at a time when most states are facing increasingly tight transportation budgets.


Most states do not have access to accurate VMT data for all travel within their state. All state DOTs are required to participate in an annual data gathering and reporting system with the Federal Highway Administration that includes data on miles of travel by roadway type, vehicle type, and roadway jurisdiction. However, in many states these reporting systems are old and inaccurate, with estimates of travel on local roads and streets especially based on scant data. A first step in addressing VMT growth is for the state DOT to focus on improving the accuracy of its VMT database.

On its surface the idea of limiting VMT growth seems to be contrary to what the public expects from transportation agencies. It sounds like the idea is to limit the public’s ability to travel. This actually should not be the objective. Almost any public survey will reveal that people believe they travel more than they want to – they spend too many hours in their cars and fill their gas tanks too frequently. Most of this travel is for a short list of common purposes: access to jobs; connections to schools, churches, friends, and family members; and access to shopping, services, and recreation. A consequence of the sprawling, low-density residential development that has has covered vast areas since World War II—and that has been encouraged and subsidized by "project and provide" transportation programs—is that the population is forced to drive long distances for basic household and personal purposes, to the detriment of quality of life and household budgets.

Many states are now beginning to address this self-defeating cycle of "project and provide"/ support sprawl/induce increased travel by recognizing that land use and transportation policy cannot be addressed through separate policy "silos." An integrated approach is required, where transportation investments are planned and prioritized based on a broader set of public objectives, such as economic vitality, energy security, climate change management, and community character. In order to follow a policy path toward managing VMT growth, the State must first make the case to the public as to why decreasing per capita VMT is appropriate and important. The State should describe its VMT growth and the impact of that trend on energy costs, climate change effects, and economic vitality. Working through its legislature the State should:

While this process would not necessarily have to be led by the state DOT, it could and perhaps should be. However, others should be involved before the proposal makes it into the legislature. A successful effort will require consultation with and involvement by housing agencies and interests; environmental entities, including open space and public lands managers; the business community; public transit providers; local and regional planners; and developers and builders. In the end, the answer to meeting the travel, access and circulation needs of residents and workers without requiring them to drive long miles in heavy traffic, is to use transportation investments as part of an integrated transportation and land use program that specifically addresses where new housing will be built, how new commercial space can be built in compact, mixed-use settings, and how new schools can be incorporated back into neighborhoods. At the same time, financial policies such as freeway tolls, parking charges, fuel taxes, and pay-as-you-drive insurance programs, can help link the economic structure of local travel closely with a VMT management policy.


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