Even though Massachusetts has quickly recovered from ‘The Great Recession of 2008,’ residents of the Commonwealth are driving less than they have in years. This statistic is not unique to one area: Driving is steadily decreasing in states around the country, according to a study by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group on Thursday.
Residents of the Commonwealth have cut their per-person driving miles by 4.03 percent since 2004, which mirrors similar reductions in 45 other states. In 2011, residents of Massachusetts drove an average of 8,318 miler per capita on average, 1,137 miles less than the national average, according to the report, “Moving Off the Road: A State-by-State Analysis of the National Decline in Driving.”
“An eight-year decrease is really significant, especially if you are looking across the board at every state in the Union,” said Kirstie Pecci, staff attorney at MASSPIRG. “The trend has continued since 2004 and, even though there are states that are more quickly recovering, they are not increasing their number of drivers on the roadway.”
Compared to other New England states, Massachusetts has one of the lowest annual vehicle miles traveled per capita in 2011. Connecticut had 8,713 miles, New Hampshire had 9,650 miles and Vermont had 11,399 miles, the highest in the Northeast, according to the study.
After World War II, the nation’s driving miles increased almost every year, which created a “driving boom.” The total number of miles increased even more due to the growth of suburbs, low gas prices and auto ownership. However, the younger generation has led the decline in the average number of miles driven by Americans, according to the report.
Although, economic reasons are a huge factor for people to stay off the roadways, Pecci said the study does not limit the reasoning to just money.
“[The study] shows the change that we are aware of, in that Millennials and even baby boomers are not driving as much as they have, not strictly due to economic factors, but due to other societal causes,” she said.
Pecci said technological changes such as the increase of smartphone use, online tools to make public transportation easier to use and a wider understanding of the effects of global warming are significant factors in the decrease of cars on the road.
“Across the country, citizens should be supporting projects that modernize the [public transit] system,” she said. “You don’t want to build a new highway and the investments should be in public transportation instead. You get your money back in economic rewards and even in the number of accidents you avoid.”
On July 24, lawmakers voted to override Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick’s veto on an $800 million transportation bill that will address some of the Commonwealth’s roadway, bridge and Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority problems. The MBTA has an overall debt of over $8.3 billion with interest payments.
Pecci said Patrick’s bill was a good step for transportation and, while Massachusetts generally has a good transportation system, more finances could be directed towards fixing public transportation.
“The way they set up the bill is a good first step to deal with the financial issues that need to be address, but it’s time for us to do more planning,” she said. “It’s time for them [lawmakers] to start working with the MBTA. We need the universities to work with the MBTA to expand it and benefit from it. Instead of just getting a slice of the pie, they need to make the pie thicker by investing in the system.”
Randall Ellis, a professor of economics at Boston University, said despite the debt of the MBTA, Boston still has a decent public transportation system.
“We have a relatively good public transportation system compared to a lot of other states, which makes it easier for people to take it causing them to walk and bicycle more,” he said. “I think you’ll find a meaningful number of people don’t own cars who live in or around Boston.”
If there were more subsidies and improved time availability, Ellis said people would be more willing to pay more to get more frequent subway service, but there has already been a push toward more eco-friendly public transportation.
“There has been a little bit of taste change, especially where young people are internalizing the concerns about climate change and the environment,” he said. “There has been additional investment in bicycle lanes on highways, which should cause more people to think about not driving as much.”