Car travel still down in Minnesota


Even with signs of a recovering economy, driving by Minnesotans continues to drop off, a trend that began as early as 2004.

The latest estimate from the Federal Highway Administration shows a decline of 30 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in Minnesota from February 2009 to 2010. That followed a drop of 52 million miles in January. Americans as a whole drove 10.3 billion fewer miles in January and February than the year-earlier period, the FWHA reports.

This is good news for the environment and our deteriorating roads and bridges, but not necessarily for our economy. Increases in driving generally track with growth in population and employment; those measures of Minnesota’s economic vitality have been in the doldrums for several years now.

Our state averaged annual gains in vehicle miles traveled of 2.7 percent from 1992 to 2004, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. That was about 15 percent ahead of the national average. Since 2004, however, driving in Minnesota has been flat or declining, and MnDOT has documented an actual dropoff in per capita VMT.

“The increasing cost of gasoline could be one factor causing this decline,” MnDOT reported in September 2008, at the outset of the U.S. financial crisis. Another might be slowing or stalled population growth in the suburbs and exurbs around the Twin Cities, areas that previously racked up the state’s biggest VMT gains.

Transit ridership in Minnesota, especially the Twin Cities area, also backed off last year following huge gains in 2008. So our people just aren’t traveling as much or as far as before, at least by motorized transport. I know of no measures of mileage by foot or bicycle, but I wonder if Minnesotans are moving around more under their own power, which would be good for their health, the environment, our infrastructure — and maybe even the economy.