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Peak Car Use and Burgeoning Cycling Volumes in Baltimore

Ever get the feeling that people aren’t driving as much as they used to? CEOs for Cities compiled national Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) data which shows the usual post-recession “bounce back”  is not happening this time. You can see their graphs here. With a struggling middle class which was hit especially hard during the last recession, fewer people can afford to keep paying for gas, insurance and repairs on a depreciating asset. Even if you’re living in a place which requires a car, maybe you’re driving less and making shorter trips to cut costs. It makes sense.

Driving is falling out of fashion (click to enlarge).

On a local note, State Highway data shows flat and gradually declining VMT levels in Baltimore City, depending on what types of roads you look at. According to SHA’s data, on average, Citywide VMT has grown 0.08% annually over the past 15 years and is up a total of 1.09% during that time. Non-Freeway VMT (which makes up about 95% of our street network) has gone down an average of 0.47% annually over the past 15 years and is down a total of 6.5% during that time. Assumed VMT growth rates used in traffic models is usually 1%-2% annually, but according to SHA’s data, this assumption wildly over estimates future volumes.

The State Highway data may not be completely accurate, but their numbers are showing volumes in the City to be consistently flat or declining, especially on neighborhood streets. This clearly isn’t representative of all communities or intersections within the City, but it may be representative of VMT citywide.


On the other hand, from all measures bike ridership is growing dramatically. Bike counts at Guilford & Mt. Royal and Aliceanna & Broadway show ridership up 100% and 60% since Spring ’09 and Fall ’10 respectively. Bike to Work Day registrations are up 347% over the past five years, and Census data shows bike commuting in Baltimore up 228% from 1990 to 2011, and up 104% from 2005 to 2011. The absolute numbers are still relatively small, but the increases have been dramatic and consistent.

So, if someone is looking for empirical reasons to invest in more biking infrastructure, complete street alternatives, and transit, there you have it.

  • Patrick

    Do the SHA control for the loss in population that the city has experienced over the same period? 

  • Tom

    So, for 35 years(1971-2006) miles annually increased, on average, by 5.2%, and, for four years it has dropped on average 1.8% annually.  Of course, after Iran’s cut-off and another recession(1979-1982), miles dropped an average of 1.7% before continuing the upward rush to the peak another peak in 2006.  The price of gas back then did slide over time.  What was your point again: the continued high price of the fuel, the declining purchasing power of the dollar, this jobless recovery, high student debt among young potential car buyers, or what?

  • Kay

     No, I don’t believe so. Population loss can heavily influence traffic volumes obviously, but don’t forget there are now many more 2/3 car households compared to decades ago. Baltimore’s street network was built to handle almost 1 million people. Now we have a little more than half of that, so it’s surprising traffic levels haven’t declined even more than shown in the data.

  • Patrick

    Right, which means that VMT per capita has actually increased dramatically and that we are actually driving much more as a society. Which is not to say that cycling has not increased significantly. It has, and hopefully will continue (and I hope that bicycle infrastructure and safety receives as much funding as humanly possible), but I think it is misguided to consider driving and cycling as substitutes as the author nudgingly suggests, considering the way that we live as an aggregated region. 

  • Mark R. Brown

    All of the above. I should have also included post recession jobs
    recovery and student loan/consumer debt graphs. What so quickly came
    back after previous recessions (including driving habits) may not return this time.

    True, per capita VMT has increased substantially in the city when you
    consider Baltimore’s population loss, but this is an unsustainable path.
    Many of our older neighborhoods were barely designed for 1 car
    households, let alone 3 cars. Cities people want to live in provide good transit and bicycle infrastructure. It’s that simple. 

    I do consider cycling a substitute for driving for many shorter trips in
    urban areas. Destinations I thought were too inconvenient by bike (when
    I was a car owner) are now part of my weekly routine. Habits can