Mass. residents drive less than in 2004, study says

Boston, MA 8/09/2013 The heavy evening rush hour traffic from the Southhampton Street Overpass on Friday August 9, 2013. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff) Topic: 10traffic Reporter:
Rush hour traffic was heavy on Interstate 93 one evening earlier this month.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Massachusetts residents are driving less than they have in years, and that number is steadily declining around the country, according to a study released Thursday by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group.

Using data from the Federal Highway Administration, the liberal-leaning consumer advocacy group said today that the number of vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts dropped by 4 percent between 2004 and 2011, a decrease in driving that has occurred in 45 other states over the last decade.

The reason behind the driving dropoff?

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The advocacy organization contended that commuters increasingly prefer public transportation, and used the study’s findings to argue for government investment in transit and bicycling options rather than the expansion of highway systems.

“It’s time for policymakers to wake up and realize the driving boom is over,” said the group’s organizer, Kristin Jackson. “We need to reconsider expensive highway expansions and focus on alternatives such as public transit and biking — which people increasingly are using to get around.”

According to the study, the number of vehicle miles traveled nationally is at the same level as in 1995, after the peaking out in 2004.

During that time period, only four states experienced an increase in the average number of miles each resident drove: North Dakota, Alabama, Nevada, and Louisiana.

Massachusetts ranks 41st in the country in the highest number of vehicles miles traveled per person, with the average Bay State resident driving 8,318 miles per year in 2011.

In a statement, former Governor Michael S. Dukakis said he felt the report spoke to the need for improved public transit options.

The study, he said, “now confirms what has been apparent to many of us for some time: people are sick and tired of wasting their time in traffic and want to live in communities that are close to their work with excellent public transportation systems,” Dukakis said in the statement.

The report is a follow-up to another study, released by the national Public Interest Research Groups in May, that contended that people around the country are becoming less dependent on vehicles and more willing to use public transit or bicycles for transportation.

Critics of that report argued that the driving dropoff was a result of the recession, and that vehicle miles traveled would increase once more as the economy improves.

Kirstie Pecci, staff attorney at the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, said Thursday that this report combats those notions because it shows little correlation between the states with the biggest decreases in driving and those hardest hit by the recession.

“This report takes the idea of economic impact off the table,” Pecci said. “There are a lot of factors that are playing into this, but it’s not the economy — it’s the way that we’re changing how we think about driving.”

Of the 10 states with the largest driving dropoff, only two also resided on the list of states with the worst unemployment rates.