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Tilting at Windmills

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July 28, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

DRIVING....Here's the latest from the Department of Transportation: total miles driven in May were down 3.7% from last year, the first significant May decline since they started keeping records in 1983, and even bigger than April's 1.6% drop. What's interesting, though, is that this change isn't as sudden as it sometimes seems: it's actually been building for a couple of years. This chart shows things a little more clearly, and you can see that driving started leveling off as early as 2006 before finally beginning to decline this year.

In one sense this is impressive: 3.7% is a fairly sizable drop. On the other hand, considering that gasoline prices have doubled since 2005, it's also a remarkably restrained response. It'll be interesting to see if these declines are permanent, or if driving volume goes back up as people get used to higher prices.

And in case you're interested, the steepest decline was in Michigan, where driving is down 7.4%. At the other end is North Dakota, the only state to laugh in the face of $4 gas. Their driving was up 0.7% in May.

Kevin Drum 12:47 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (49)

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... the steepest decline was in Michigan, where driving is down 7.4%. At the other end is North Dakota, the only state to laugh in the face of $4 gas. Their driving was up 0.7% in May.

My guesses would be that North Dakotans have no alternative to driving when they need to get somewhere (no mass transit in cities like Bismarck &... &... & I'm not sure there's another city in ND -- and there's little in the way of population density for stuff like carpooling), and that the economy in Michigan is so unbelievably crappy that folks are acting rationally.

Posted by: junebug on July 28, 2008 at 1:19 PM | PERMALINK

The gas consumption numbers from North Dakota and other farm states are often skewed a bit. This is because studies only look at taxable gas and diesel sold for use on the road. It turns out a lot of farmers sneak their pickups and family cars back to the tank behind the barn that holds untaxed off-road gas and diesel intended for their farm equipment. It could be that North Dakotan farmers are gassing up more at the gas stations to lengthen the time before they take the big hit of filling the 1000 gallon tank behind the barn.

Posted by: fafner1 on July 28, 2008 at 1:29 PM | PERMALINK

Junebug: Yeah, that's my guess too. Although it's worth noting that other sparsely populated states didn't show the same trend.

Fafner1: The DOT figures aren't for gas consumption, they're for miles driven. They measure it using road sensors or something.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on July 28, 2008 at 1:38 PM | PERMALINK

The WaPost said this spring that, among people who have not yet made adjustments to their driving habits, that gas will have to hit $5.65 before they do, which I said was a great argument for hiking the gas tax, and for what we could do with the money. (The story, I noted, was faultable for its lack of precision on some things.)

That said, the current cutback in driving is a drop in the gas tank, and without the stick of more gas taxes, will probably be temporary, at least in the full degree of cutback.

On the road sensors, I believe local-based road sensors, such as the double rubber strips laid out on streets from time to time, are part of that surveying.

The Michigan decline? Shit, when you've been fired by GM, you can't afford to drive your GM car as much now, can you?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 28, 2008 at 1:43 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, that's my guess too. Although it's worth noting that other sparsely populated states didn't show the same trend.

Obviously North Dakotans are sneaking over the border for some cheaper, socialistic gas that falls dangerously below high American standards.

Posted by: shortstop on July 28, 2008 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

Fafner, the "driving miles" idea doesn't negate the fact that farmers are dipping into their blue diesel. But, that's a fine of a few thousand dineros if you're caught. And, when I lived in a more rural part of Texas, I heard of people actually being caught.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on July 28, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

Now might be a good time for folks to get targeted and focused public transit initiatives passed around for the November election.

One problem we have in 2008 that wasn't present in say, 1941, is the amount of infrastructure required just to add a new bus route.

In Phoenix, the bus system is mainly something the maids and students take, while the real citizen drives her humvee, it wasn't until 2006 and the start of the light rail construction that Phoenix even put up sun shades at the bus stops. Why? Well real people have cars.

What they did build were "regional transit centers" that are usually located at a malls. And then, deciding that buses were as fast as aircraft, they built routes where often to get from A to B you do that via a journey to downtown Phoenix and a transfer. There are no express buses that move from transit center to transit center which results in the bus system being unable to serve anyone with any time constraint. My 25 minute commute by car is literally a three hour commute by bus. And a trip to the airport has to be made by car, because it's three transfers and three hours by bus, even though I live within 1/4 mile of a transit center 10 miles from the airport.

A lot of those car miles you see dropping are unnecessary trips and hopefully carpooling. Until we can launch the "War on car driving" and more quickly reconfigure our bus routes and build light rail, there's going to be a huge limit as to how fast those miles can drop.

walkscore.com is a terrific site Kevin, what's the walkscore in your neighborhood?

Posted by: jerry on July 28, 2008 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

Obviously North Dakotans are sneaking over the border for some cheaper, socialistic gas that falls dangerously below high American standards.

Posted by: shortstop

Uh shortstop, gas is more expensive in Canada -there are more taxes on it. This has always and will always be the case.

Posted by: optical weenie on July 28, 2008 at 2:07 PM | PERMALINK

Currently at $1.41/l (cad) , or about $5.22 per gallon (usd).

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on July 28, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder how much the Michigan decline in driving can be accounted for by demographic changes. The state experienced a net loss in population in 2006 and 2007. I would suspect that 0.25% fewer people somewhat correlates with 0.25% less driving.

Come to think of it, there are a lot of ways to interpret why people are driving less, aside from just a change in habits due to the high cost of fuel. I could see a correlation with unemployment. Going back and forth to work accounts for 75% of my driving. If I had no job to go to that would be a lot of driving not happening.

Posted by: Joe Bob on July 28, 2008 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

Bruce the Canuck: It was a joke based on the old prescription drug mantra of the American right. Not one of my better jokes, I concede.

Posted by: shortstop on July 28, 2008 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

I know it's not 7%, but check the decline in population in Michigan and it will account for some of the decrease. Even people who haven't lost their jobs are looking for opportunities elsewhere.

Posted by: RollaMO on July 28, 2008 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with some of the others. I suspect that this is a blend of people cutting back on miles driven due to the price of fuel and people cutting back on driving because they no longer commute to a job which has been lost. The economy in Michigan is really in the tank.

Posted by: JohnK on July 28, 2008 at 2:39 PM | PERMALINK

You could pretty well predict this, given factors like gas guzzlers that could be downsized and overuse of cars by people who could choose other options, etc. I imagine more knowlegeable people would have even better factors.

Posted by: Bob M on July 28, 2008 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

"It'll be interesting to see if these declines are permanent, or if driving volume goes back up as people get used to higher prices."

Gasoline consumption will go down further, as people make the investments needed to use less gasoline and get the same usable output: more efficient cars, changing job and residential locations, changing work processes. These long-run effects are larger than the short-run effects (though a bit hard to estimate precisely).

Posted by: stefan on July 28, 2008 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

Shortstop: I got the joke, and laughed out loud. I'll be sure to tip the waitstaff.

Posted by: WSP on July 28, 2008 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

junebug on July 28, 2008 at 1:19 PM:

...the economy in Michigan is so unbelievably crappy that folks are acting rationally.

Yes, and we have no public transportation to speak of...

Joe Bob on July 28, 2008 at 2:25 PM:

I would suspect that 0.25% fewer people [in Michigan] somewhat correlates with 0.25% less driving.

Until you consider that some of the people who do have jobs here are driving further from their homes in order to stay employed...Also, if you do get hired in somewhere, chances are you're not making what you were five years ago, which cuts into discretionary income, which makes that vacation in your backyard much more attractive.

Almost everyone is cutting back, even with gas prices dipping at the moment.

Posted by: grape_crush on July 28, 2008 at 2:54 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, but will shortstop be here all week?

Posted by: ckelly on July 28, 2008 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

My guesses would be that North Dakotans have no alternative to driving when they need to get somewhere (no mass transit in cities like Bismarck &... &... &

Fargo, dude! Don't tell me you didn't see the movie. :)

But your point is well taken: in ND, your choices are (a) drive, or (b) stay home.

Posted by: low-tech cyclist on July 28, 2008 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

ckelly on July 28, 2008 at 2:55 PM:

Yes, but will shortstop be here all week?

No, I'm not trying the veal.

Posted by: grape_crush on July 28, 2008 at 2:58 PM | PERMALINK

Laughing at $4 gas in N. Dakota? I think not. Have you BEEN to N. Dakota? There is nowhere you can possibly go, nothing you possibly do, that doesn't REQUIRE driving.

There's nothing there! Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Hell on earth.

Of COURSE you drive! If for no other reason than to keep you from having to stand outside in all the flat nothingness.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on July 28, 2008 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

Laughing at $4 gas in N. Dakota? I think not. Have you BEEN to N. Dakota? There is nowhere you can possibly go, nothing you possibly do, that doesn't REQUIRE driving.

There's nothing there! Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles. Hell on earth.

Of COURSE you drive! If for no other reason than to keep you from having to stand outside in all the flat nothingness.

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on July 28, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

Optical, honey,

Are you going to leave me all alone on the gas tax holiday once again?

Last time, you told me you were going to visit a sick friend. And that your friend was so grateful she bought you those shoes.

Honey, you know I want to believe you. But I've been to the doctor, and he says that those are not Alaska King Crabs.

your loving husband,
Oscar M. Weenie.

Posted by: oscar m. weenie on July 28, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

How soon until the auto insurers appeal to Congress for a bailout?

Posted by: Brojo on July 28, 2008 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

I dunno Kevin.
3.7% seems pretty significant to me, especially considering that gasoline is generally considered to have a low elasticity of demand.
People gotta get to work, and go out to buy food. They don't have a lot of options regarding the "how", where those two imperatives are concerned.
And, remember that these are Americans we're talking about. Viewed through that lens, that's an arguably mind-boggling drop.
I still think we should have listened to Jimmy, but if encroaching poverty is what it takes to change our habits, well, better late than never.

Posted by: kenga on July 28, 2008 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Anybody interested in a little math??

The IRS says it cost 58.5 cents a mile to drive a car.

Assume $4.00 gas

Assume 25 MPG
16 cents per mile.

Assume 20 MPG
20 cents per mile

So that means that gas is less than 1/3 of the total cost of driving a car.

Yeah, it is more than 1/3 of the marginal cost of each additional mile but $4 a gallon gas is not as big a deal as everyone makes it out to be.

PS I drive a Kia, walk to the supermarket, walk to downtown, and drive less than 5,000 miles a year.

Posted by: neil wilson on July 28, 2008 at 3:18 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, it is more than 1/3 of the marginal cost of each additional mile but $4 a gallon gas is not as big a deal as everyone makes it out to be.

It is for a society that has been built, from the ground up, to depend on driving for almost everything. It matters for a society of gas-guzzler-driving idiots who thought the gravy train was forever. It matters.

This isn't Europe. Towns and cities are not as compact, not as close together. There isn't the mass transit infrastructure in place (we are now racing to play catchup) nor is there the bike-friendly infrastructure. Walkable communities are few and far between. Families are separated by many hundreds of miles. Suburbs are separated from shopping areas, social areas, by miles.

The entire US infrastructure and design is based on the fantasy of never-ending gas, absolute environmental immunity to human depredations, and the conceit that nothing will ever change.

It is a big deal.

By the way, I drive a Civic Hybrid (but occasionally a gas-guzzling pickup...we have horses and a rural home - cannot avoid a guzzler, unfortunately).

Posted by: Praedor Atrebates on July 28, 2008 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

walkscore.com is a terrific site

If I recall correctly, what sucks about walkscore is:

1) It scores by how many stores, restaurants, services, etc. you can walk to, but doesn't score on how freaking close to public transit you are. It's nice that they tell you good places to hoof it once you make it home, but how about getting to and from home--for example, when you go to work? I realize not everyone has public transit, but neighborhoods that do should surely score higher for it.
2) It makes no distinction between quality/usefulness of shops and services available. So a McDonalds scores as high as someplace you might actually go to eat, and a shop selling only ceramic cat figurines or Capezio footwear scores as high as, say, a hardware store or a drugstore. Also, and this is meaningful for people in large cities, bodegas with rotten fruit do not equal well-stocked grocery stores, although walkscore doesn't know that.

Thus, my old hood, which had cute shops to a gag-inducing degree, got a 90-something despite being a mile in either direction from the El and six blocks from decent buses. My current neighborhood, which has several excellent express buses a half block from our place (and the El only a bit farther) but requires us to venture a few blocks to purchase Murano glass, scores in the high 80s.

Posted by: shortstop on July 28, 2008 at 3:29 PM | PERMALINK

hmmm....guess my driving over double the miles I usually put on in a month (multiple road trips...stupid wedding season) didn't balance out the national average....more than 3000 miles in July already....good thing I have a Honda civic, eh?

Posted by: ghost on July 28, 2008 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

Oscar,
What the heck are you talking about. We've been divorced over 10 years. And I've hooked up with this ugly dude named Thersites. He's the one who buys me my shoes.

Posted by: optical weenie on July 28, 2008 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

The IRS figure consists mostly of items the people typically don't think of, particularly depreciation (if you buy a car for $20K, drive it 100K miles, then sell it for $8K, it cost you 12 cents a mile in depreciation), repairs and maintenance, and insurance. Many of those costs don't change that much if you leave the car in the driveway (the age as well as the mileage reduces the value, for example), but someone who's barely keeping ahead of the bills can try to drive less.

Posted by: Joe Buck on July 28, 2008 at 4:38 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, the walkscore technology and ratings are pretty inaccurate. Where I live it's like a 80 and it should be a 20. In addition to what you mention, they miscategorize various stores, a Circle K is NOT a grocery store. A Jamba Juice is not a bar. And they don't count how close the stores are either. There is a grocery store and a coffee house within a 3/4 mile of me. But they are a mile away from each other too.

Nevertheless, the basic idea is fantastic, and they provide the data on maps you can browse, so it makes it much easier to see what they are doing and doing wrong.

And I am very glad they are even raising the issue.

Posted by: jerry on July 28, 2008 at 4:55 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure why I feel the need to defend Fargo. I don't live or have any connection whatsoever with the city. But, Fargo does have a public transit system.

http://www.matbus.com/

Posted by: Rich on July 28, 2008 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Most farmers are having a good year. It makes sense that they might drive a bit more in spite of the high gas prices.

Posted by: fafner1 on July 28, 2008 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

North Dakota is BOOMING these days because of the Bakken oil field (shale), which spans ND, Montana, Saskatchewan. Some are saying there's 100 billion barrels in the Bakken. New techniques of horizontal drilling combined with fracturing have led to an increasing flow of the lightest, sweetest oil (requiring less refining) this side of Texas.

http://www.kiplinger.com/businessresource/forecast/archive/The_U.S._Poised_to_hit_New_Oil_Gusher_080317.html

Oil companies like EGO, Brigham, Crescent Point, etc are offering fortunes to the ND farmer, with millionaires being made every day.

Posted by: Dilbert on July 28, 2008 at 6:19 PM | PERMALINK

If North Dakota is anything like Saskatchewan just north of it, there's almost nobody there, so "booming" would hardly be saying much.

The Bakken oil is very difficult to recover, the best estimates look to be that only 4B barrels will be pulled out, and that probably slowly. That's 9 months supply for the USA.

If you want a better, faster & cheaper option, go check out T Boon Pickens plan: replace the NG electricity generation with wind power (which the US midwest has a vast resource of), and convert 1/3 of the vehicle to NG. Let the SUVs die off at the same time, and bang, you have a 50% drop in oil imports within 10 years, saving $350B per year in trade imbalance.

Add a couple more measures and you're ahead of europe in GG emissions to boot, shielded from peak oil, and financially solvent. Clean, no fancy new tech required, existing technology.

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on July 28, 2008 at 6:53 PM | PERMALINK

... a shop selling only ceramic cat figurines or Capezio footwear scores as high as, say, a hardware store or a drugstore.

You talkin' hypothetical-like, or you have some addresses for me? And what do you mean "only?"

Posted by: junebug on July 28, 2008 at 6:58 PM | PERMALINK

As I said, ND is BOOMING. From

http://www.minnpost.com/stories/2008/02/26/984/booming_oil_patch_lights_up_north_dakota_rangeland


'With bumper crops of wheat and other commodities bringing record prices to match the oil boom, North Dakota is enjoying "the most robust economy I've seen" in 22 years, said Kathryn Strombeck, a research analyst with the state Tax Department. Through December, state general fund revenues — primarily income and sales taxes — were running well ahead of the last biennium, she said, building a budget surplus that will be the envy of many other states.

"We're producing both oil and agricultural commodities and riding big waves (high yields and high prices) in both of those," Strombeck said.

"And maybe because we're more conservative here, we didn't get into the subprime mortgages that are causing problems in most other states."

In some western counties, officials handling land records have added staff, opened on weekends and extended service counters into hallways to accommodate oil-industry land men researching mineral rights and leases."'

Posted by: Dilbert on July 28, 2008 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

The recoverable part is at best 0.1% of global ultimate recoverable oil, and it'll be slow to get out. So I'm not sure what "ND is BOOMING" has to do with the issue at hand. An excitingly old-new frontier story, to warm a midwesterner's heart? It'd hardly even take a penny off the price of oil.

Posted by: Bruce the Canuck on July 28, 2008 at 8:48 PM | PERMALINK

Don't know if it accounts for the uptick, but there was a huge energy conference in Minot, ND in May. Seems there was a lot of excitement about a reserve underneath Western NDakota, maybe that's their way of celebrating.

Posted by: coldhotel on July 28, 2008 at 9:45 PM | PERMALINK

My guess is that driving habits have (in engineering terms) a slow time-constant. That is, it takes a lot of effort and thus time to switch from the habit of driving everywhere to finding other means of transportation (or even to start reducing or optimizing one's driving patterns). So even if gas prices levelled off this year and for the next few years, my bet is total miles would still drop.

Posted by: mitch on July 28, 2008 at 11:58 PM | PERMALINK

My guess is that driving habits have (in engineering terms) a slow time-constant. That is, it takes a lot of effort and thus time to switch from the habit of driving everywhere to finding other means of transportation (or even to start reducing or optimizing one's driving patterns). So even if gas prices levelled off this year and for the next few years, my bet is total miles would still drop.

Posted by: mitch on July 28, 2008 at 11:58 PM | PERMALINK

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121721483297789245.html?mod=fpa_mostpop

Funds for highways drop as Americans use less gas.

Posted by: Jet on July 29, 2008 at 1:56 AM | PERMALINK

What this says is that VMT is more about the economy than about gas prices per se.

North Dakota is booming due to higher food prices and drilling activity.

Michigan is in little short of a depression due to the collapse of the domestic auto industry.

We saw this same pattern the last time VMT fell 1979-1981: severe recessions mean people aren't driving to work, or to the mall- no job, and nothing to spend.

See those Michael Moore films of Flint MI, and how barren it looks (I realise there are undoubtedly nicer parts of town).

Posted by: Valuethinker on July 29, 2008 at 4:24 AM | PERMALINK

Mobility is a Right, not a Privilege. Resist the tyranny of the ped people.

Posted by: JeremiadJones on July 29, 2008 at 9:49 AM | PERMALINK

To say that the curve of miles driven has any kind of downward concavity till around April of this year looks like a real statistical stretch to me.

Posted by: rbe1 on July 29, 2008 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

Re Michigan: If you have a whole bunch of early retirees and other buyouts, you can get a really dramatic drop in miles traveled. I retired at the end of last year, then worked on an agency basis for a month or so in June and July. There's been an amazing difference in the traffic congestion in that time. My 20-mile commute used to be 30 minutes on a really good day and 40-45 on a bad day. Now it's pretty consistently 25 minutes. I attributed that to the reduction in workers downtown (GM) and in Dearborn (Ford).

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