A company called Inrix analyzes over 30,000 road segments on more than 47,000 miles of the major highways in the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the US to measure urban traffic congestion. Here’s a link to their report, where they found a 3 percent drop in Vehicle Miles Travelled in the US in 2008. Some regions did better than others, of course: Riverside, San Diego, San Francisco, and LA had some of the largest decreases from 2007-2008, as did Honolulu, Miami and Seattle. Inrix found that high gas prices and a lagging economy were the primary root causes of the decrease…not increased public transit use. Still, it’s worth celebrating the fact that increased gas prices have a definite impact on car usage; in times of economic largesse higher gas taxes could be implemented. 

This news comes on the heels of a New York Times article citing the highest public transit ridership in 52 years. Ridership rose sharply as the result of high gas prices in 2008, and remained high even when gas prices dropped in the latter part of the year.

This contrasts with Statistics Canada’s more dour observations: we drove 5% more in 2006 than in 2002. Stats Can reported that higher incomes and lower prices for other goods have partially offset the cost of higher consumption rates and gasoline prices between Census years (2001, 2006). As this article was released in August of 2008 before the current economic crisis had taken hold in Canada, things may have started to shift. StatsCan noted that in two earlier recessionary periods, Canadians did in fact consume less gasoline:

  • The volume of gasoline purchased by consumers fell 12.1 per cent between 1980 and 1984, when prices rose 65 per cent
  • Consumption fell 5.1 per cent from 1989 to 1991 when prices increased 12 per cent.

The effects in Canadian cities, then, are still to be seen. In the US, with many cities cutting transit routes, laying off transit operators, and raising fares due to the recession, ridership may not remain at the historic 2008 levels in the coming year.

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