New study shows that urban driving is way up, rural driving is way down

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© Ford, who used to sell pickup trucks to farmers.

Whenever I see an email from Michael Sivak in my inbox I know I am going to be depressed. He is the Director, Sustainable Worldwide Transportation, at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) and sends out reports that show what is really happening out there on the roads. For example, we Treehuggers can fantasize about more efficient cars and fewer people driving, but Sivak and his associate Brandon Schoettle will tell us that the fuel economy of American vehicles continues to drop and that more people are driving SUVs and pickups.

The latest report, "Recent Diverging Trends in the Amount of Urban and Rural Driving in the United States" is particularly interesting and depressing. The authors find:

…the overall distance driven increased by 15% between 2000 and 2016. Second, during this period, urban distance driven increased by 33%, while rural distance driven decreased by 12%.

© University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute

The increase in the overall distance driven is not surprising; the population increased by that percentage during that time. But what could cause such a dramatic decline in rural driving and the even bigger increase in urban? The authors ask questions about this too and suggest that this needs further research, but one can make a few guesses.

We know that rural communities continue to depopulate, and that the people who are left are older and poorer. We saw the results of this in the last election which really did demonstrate a stark urban/ rural divide.

Cities and suburbs have also expanded dramatically; probably almost all of that 15 percent increase in population went to cities. Most of them, particularly in the south, have seriously sprawled. Reading Richard Florida’s latest book, I was surprised to learn that Mesa, Arizona (which I had never even heard of) had a larger population than Atlanta, Miami and other well-known cities. People in these places drive a lot.

The sad and crazy thing, when you read this report together with UMTRI’s earlier ones, is that a) miles driven are increasing, b) it’s mainly in suburbs and cities, and c) it is in bigger, less fuel efficient vehicles.

And all those things that we love, from walking to bikes to transit to intercity rail, have not made an iota of difference. Every report from Sivak and Schoettle shows the difference between data and anecdata, and it almost always depressing to this TreeHugger.