In January, total vehicle miles of travel (VMT) increased by 1.6%. This came on the heels of a 1.3% rise in December. That later gain, however, followed nine consecutive months of decline – and, the twelve-month rolling average of VMT is still 3.5% below the peak level reached in November 2007.
As was the case in December, the biggest VMT gains came in the Northeast and North Central sections of the country, which suggest that mild winter weather was partly responsible.
Previous posts have noted how the historic decline in VMT has exceeded what one would expect based solely on the recession and higher gas prices. It has, however, been consistent with the failure of U.S. employment to also return to its previous peak (January 2008).
So, in addition to mild weather, recent monthly gains in VMT were likely aided by the 223,000 and 284,000 increases in employment that occurred in December and January. In February, payrolls grew by another 227,000, but gasoline prices increased by nearly 30 cents a gallon and then another 20 cents, so far in March. Thus, future VMT reports will give insights into how much structural change has occurred in consumer behavior. The primary use of a vehicle is for travel to and from work, so if VMT remains weak even as employment grows it suggests a significant falloff in discretionary driving.