Miles Driven Eke Out Record after Covid-Plunge: People Drive Less, but there Are More People

Mass transit is still singing the remote-work blues. RTO not now?

By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET.

The number of miles driven by highway-legal vehicles of all types – cars and light trucks, buses, motorcycles, delivery vans, medium-duty and heavy trucks – rose by 2.1% in 2023, to 3,264 billion miles, and that, folks, was a new record, barely squeaking past the prior record of 2019, according to estimates by the Department of Transportation.

Miles driven took a huge hit during the pandemic, as many people stopped driving to work, either because they’d been laid off or because they’d shifted to working from home.

Despite a year of corporate handwringing about the return to the office (RTO), office attendance is far from having reached the old levels; what we’re seeing here is that people have switched during the pandemic to driving instead of using public transit systems, and that habit has stuck, streets and highways are now as congested as before, while public transit systems are still singing the blues, as we’ll see in a moment:

The Department of Transportation bases its estimates of miles driven on traffic counts collected at about 7,500 traffic counting locations across the US.

The mass-transit blues.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, one of the largest commuter rail systems in the country, exemplifies the mass-transit blues (and it even got some all-new trains now). In 2019, 117.3 million passengers used it. During the pandemic, usage collapsed, and people drove what were initially beautifully uncongested highways. As more people drove, congestion began to return to prepandemic levels.

But BART ridership has recovered only partially. In 2023, ridership rose 12% year-over-year to 47.6 million people, more than double the ridership in 2020, but still down 59% from 2019.

In the last four months – October through January – ridership was up in the range of 10-20% from the same months a year earlier, so ridership has continued to increase.

But given the persistence of hybrid work and full-time remote, the recovery will be a long slog, and there are doubts ridership will go back to 2019 levels. Mass transit ridership in general somewhat reflects the massive structural crisis of office towers, as office CRE keeps getting messier in the aftermath of “The War for Space.”

People are driving less, but there are more people.

It boils down to this: The US population of driving age (16 years and older) keeps increasing, but on average, each person has been driving less, a trend that started after the peak in 2004.

In 2004, there were 223.4 million people over 16 in the US, according to the Census Bureau. And 2,965 billion miles were driven that year, or 13,274 miles per person of driving age.

In 2023, there were 267.0 million people over 16, an increase of 20% from 2004, while the 3,264 billion miles driven were up only 10% over the same period. And the average fell by 8% from 2004, to 12,226 miles per person of driving age.

In 2023, miles driven per person of driving age, at 12,226 miles, was still down by nearly 3% from 2019. But over the same period, the population of driving age rose by 3%. So overall miles driven squeaked past the 2019 record.

This chart also shows the results of the American commuting culture and urban sprawl that led to ever-more miles driven per person through 2004. The only two exceptions were the two oil shocks in the 1970s, when the price of gasoline exploded.

But after 2004, a big change slowly took effect. The employment crisis of the Great Recession, which reduced commuting, didn’t start till 2008, and by late 2010 employment was growing again; so it doesn’t explain the totality of the curve though it contributed to it. We can see that there is a structural shift in the background that has been going on for two decades.

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  62 comments for “Miles Driven Eke Out Record after Covid-Plunge: People Drive Less, but there Are More People

  1. Robert Snider says:

    I was just looking at the Washington DC metro ridership figures yesterday. They show a very similar pattern to BART.

    https://www.wmata.com/initiatives/ridership-portal/Metrorail-Ridership-Summary.cfm

    • Max Power says:

      Yep, it also matches perfectly other stats associated with return to the office figures which indicate that RTO has been “stuck” at about 50% of the pre pandemic rate nationwide for the past 15 months or so. Besides mass transit utilization, this includes stats measured using cellphone location data and building access card swipes.

      In other words, while employers have been making a lot of noise about enforcing RTO mandates, on the ground this has resulted in practically zero effect on actual office occupancy for past year+.

  2. Hubberts Curve says:

    How much do you think the order-out-for-delivery habits that were grown during the pandemic effect miles driven? On one hand there are more miles driven by delivery folks and less miles driven by Joe average heading down to the Taco Bell.
    With the cost of vehicles, gas, insurance and tires we are probably never going back to the miles driven per person that we had during the peak of happy motoring.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      This is an interesting question, and we grappled with it before occasionally, without coming up with solid answers.

      Broader ecommerce is likely a bigger complication than just food delivery services. The number of last-mile vans I see driving around and double-parking is just stunning. It used to be just UPS and FedEx and the USPS. Now it’s all them with UPS and Fed-Ex several times a day, plus Amazon all day long and even weekends, plus private contractors, etc. So they’re driving lots of miles.

      But on the other hand, people that buy online no longer drive to the mall or specialty store to buy that item there. A van on a route puts on less miles in a day than 30 people hopping into their cars to drive to the mall.

      I’m not even going to guess whether the net of ecommerce-minus-mall-driving added or subtracted miles on a per-capita basis.

      Uber is kind of the same question. In big dense cities, people use Uber instead of owning a car (they also walk and use mass transit). So they don’t drive at all. But the Ubers drive. What’s the net miles added/subtracted?

      Ultimately, we can see in the long-term trends that something big is going on that changed the direction of what was decades of ever more miles per capita.

      • Thunderdownunder says:

        ‘A van on a route puts on less miles in a day than 30 people hopping into their cars to drive to the mall.’
        This is why a lot of people come here ! Clear thought!
        I did the sums on a New Lexus ES300h and even though I love the vehicle, Uber Premium is just a no Brainer if you plan ahead. On Holidays the sums worked out even better.
        Vehicle ownership has become a ever widening sink hole of cash when all is factored in.

        • Coffee says:

          The van may drive fewer miles per day then 30 people heading to the malls, but the van will drive similar miles every day of the week, while 30 people would typically head to the malls once per week.

          For example: Mall is 10 miles away, 30 people drive 10 miles each way: 600 miles (one day per week) driven.

          Van driver drives 400 miles a full route (fewer miles in a day then the mall rats) per day: 2800 miles per week driven.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          LOL, only 30 people live in that town? You wouldn’t need a route. In a metro of a million people, there are a gazillion vans delivering to different people every day, and they used different computer-generated routes every day, and those different people don’t drive to the mall. In a metro of a million people, all delivery services combined might make 10 million deliveries a year. That’s a lot of trips not made to the mall.

        • Don says:

          Interesting. Of course while Amtrak still functions in San Mateo County for freight and passengers, Bart never made it to San Jose from San Francisco due to the political power of the Woodside Hillsborough political Lear jet flying elites that can easily afford those luxury vehicle price increases and trips to Bohemian Grove.

        • BD says:

          Probably renting a vehicle is even better, except for very short distances.

  3. sightline says:

    Can confirm; riding the BART is a joy these days – new cars, plenty of seats.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      They still screech though — even the new trains. I don’t know why that’s so hard to fix. Some harmonic vibration.

      • Herpderp says:

        That’s a largely unavoidable issue with the rail layout. Doesnt matter how much dampening you put on the trucks of the cars, a fixed axle hitting a tight turn common in commuter rail is going to cause steel to jitter and skid on one side or the other since the wheels are traveling two different distances. The T in Boston is notorious for this. Red and orange lines not so much since they have relatively straighter paths. Its not just loud but causes wear on the rail and wheelset too.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          Well, yes, in general maybe — though I ride trains and subways in other places, and they don’t screech. And this is happening on straights too. It’s called the BART screech because it’s unique. You can Google the term because it’s so unique 🤣🤣

        • Happy1 says:

          The Tube in London also does this.

        • Rick Vincent says:

          The Green Line through Kenmore area has so much noise my teeth hurt.

        • Bill says:

          So true. There’s lots of YTube videos explaining the physics of railroad tracks and their wheels.

        • Candyman says:

          The T, is the oldest in the country. The Green line has track turns that are tight for the larger cars using trees same rails. The solution is they spray oil on the wheels as they pass certain turns .

      • Celt says:

        Made by the Chinese National Railway Corporation (low quality) that consistently low balls on bids vs. Siemens and other major manufacturers. Ridership has plateaued due to crime in all major metro transit systems but people refuse to acknowledge it outside of NYC.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          Not sure if your comment is about the BART.

          The old trains were made in the 1970s when China was in chaos and didn’t export hardly anything. I think they were made by an Italian company.

          The new trains are made by Alstom (French) which bought Bombardier (Canadian) which got the contract to build the trains.

          The new trains sets were assembled in New York, but production will be moved to California to make the future train sets.

          The screech is NOT caused by the trains, it’s caused by an issue with the rails and/or the railbed, which is why both old and new cars screech.

  4. Jeff Funk says:

    The fall in public transport ridership is also behind the recent profitability of Uber. Many public transport companies went bankrupt during the pandemic while others under invested and thus don’t offer good or full services. As people have returned to offices, there are fewer options for people so they take Uber, and Uber has raised prices to benefit from the increased demand

    • joedidee says:

      I was recently informed that you RIDE FREE of charge in Tucson Mass transit
      yep its free
      got figure
      but in Tucson less than 3% ride

      • DawnsEarlyLight says:

        Only during certain times of the year, which is becoming more frequent.

        • Green Bay says:

          In Longmont, CO (population 101,000), all bus rides within the city are free.

        • Nyguy says:

          In my county the busses no longer run on Sunday, not enough drivers. I don’t use the bus too much but when I do it’s awesome, $2 for an adult ride and those drivers don’t play. Everyone is respectful but it’s a respect based culture out in flyover.

      • Arizona Slim says:

        I’m also in Tucson, where some of us refer to SunTran as the Free Crime Bus.

        There’s quite the shoplifting uptick whenever the bus stops at the grocery store where a friend works. This has been going on for well over a year, and our mayor and council couldn’t care less.

        Meanwhile, my friend worries about her store closing because of all the shoplifting.

    • MM says:

      “public transport companies”

      Isn’t most public transit run by the city or state?

  5. DR_ECE_Prof_FinancialWizard says:

    Wolf:
    “But after 2004, a big change slowly took effect. The employment crisis of the Great Recession, which reduced commuting, didn’t start till 2008, and by late 2010 employment was growing again; so it doesn’t explain the totality of the curve though it contributed to it. ”

    here is a possible answer:
    Amazon launched their Prime subscription in February of 2005 at the initial price point of $79 a year, offering unlimited 2-day delivery on over 1 million in-stock items (or as they announced it “all-you-can-eat express shipping”).

  6. ApartmentInvestor says:

    I have some friends in the East Bay that are back working “in the office” (in Downtown SF) but are not riding BART as they did in the past due to a higher percentage of crazy people in the trains (that are using them as a moving homeless centers) “and” in increase in “Bipping” in the BART East Bay Parking lots (the text on the YouTube trailer for the new “Bipping Movie” “Splash City” says “In the Bay, every 30 seconds a window is broken and a car is broken into” Since Covid I have passed well over 100 TART (Tahoe Truckee Area Regional Transportation) busses and over 90% of them have been empty. TART recently started a new UBER type service called “TART Connect” that will pick you up at home and take you to the store rather than keeping all the empty full size busses driving around the lake. With less and less long term rentals in Tahoe for the poor (most have already been converted to AirBnBs) in Tahoe there are less and less people up there that even thinking about “taking the bus”. I’ve been managing apartments for over 40 years and due to the higher cost less people have cars today (you can’t buy a used Honda Civic for $1K like you could in the 80’s and less people need a second car with UBERR/Lyft) and WAY more people get stuff delivered (last week I helped a DoorDash guy delivering a single Starbucks Latte to one of my residents find the unit). With insurance going up I bet even more people will be getting rid of cars. Just two years ago it cost $440/year to insure my Land Rover Defender 90 that I keep at the cabin with a Hagerty low miles “Collector Car” policy. It is now up to $730/year and when I was driving it this past weekend I realized that I drove it less than 730 miles in the past year.

    P.S. When I was in High School the Fairfield Area Rapid Transit was called “FART”

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Well, I ride the BART and it’s better than before. New trains, cleaner trains, mostly no crowds. What’s not to like?

      • DawnsEarlyLight says:

        The howling banshees at each stop?

      • Jack says:

        “What’s not to like,” said the person who obviously does not regularly ride BART through West Oakland to the 12th Street Station up to Richmond.

    • robert says:

      In Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission, TTC, has historically been known colloquially as ‘Take The Car’.
      More recently all the streetcars were replaced with streamlined new units over 100 feet long. All the transit stops had to be redone to accommodate the extra length, and they run 90% empty 90% of the time. I usually see them with a half dozen riders, except for an hour or so a day, rush hour. Street trains, to make us ‘world class’, as the saying goes, when bureaucrats want to do something expensive and stupid.
      The main complaint about the previous service was that the service was not frequent enough, too much waiting. So the new service, because of the increased capacity of the ‘trains’, was made LESS frequent. What they should have done is make the vehicles half the size and run more of them. Anyway, ridership is down drastically, fares have increased, and previously dedicated riders I know have just stopped using it because it takes even longer to get somewhere than it ever did.

      • Celt says:

        Public transit fares cover on average 25% of operational expenses and equipment purchases on a good day. You pay the balance.

  7. Halibut says:

    So, there’s more and more “driving age” people, but less and less “working age” people? We see stories all the time about not enough people working to sustain social security. Hmm.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      It’s the SAME population. Working age = 16 and over.

      But there is a lot of demand for labor, and lots of retirees have left the labor force, so the LABOR FORCE (= people looking for a job or working) is a little tight, given the substantial jobs growth and demand for labor.

      • VIII says:

        Don’t underestimate the impact of ACA on the labor force participation rate – for a decent proportion of the labor force (say age 45-65), ACA subsidies provide an option to either retire early or go part-time/one spouse retire.

        Ironically when they get to 65, they then complain about how expensive Medicare is (compared to ACA).

        • Happy1 says:

          This is absolutely the case. The subsidies for people who can modulate their income as an early retiree are staggering. It’s insane that taxpayers are paying 10K a year or more to subsidize early retirement health care costs for wealthy FIRE types with millions in assets, but this is exactly what is happening. Of course we’ve been paying thousands for wealthy people to buy EVs, so maybe it isn’t that shocking. ACA subsidies are the reason I am contemplating early retirement, without them I would probably work 2 or 3 more years.

  8. William Leake says:

    Many years ago I would take an AC Transit or BART train to get somewhere. It was always a creepy experience (because of all the creeps riding). By the time I dove to a BART station and parked or waited a half hour or more for a bus at a bus-stop, and given all the drawbacks to public transportation, I decided it’s just easier and safer to drive wherever I wanted to go. Public transportation in the Bay Area has a very big “disgust” or “ick” factor, which authorities rarely discuss. I don’t use Uber or Lyft, but I imagine they, along with remote working, have also put a fair sized dent in pubic transportation.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      You’re risking your life driving to work. Hundreds of people died in traffic accidents every year in the Bay Area. 40,000 people die nationally in traffic accidents. But you feel “safer” in our deathtrap than in the BART? Logic is not a human strength 🤣

      • William Leake says:

        Speaking of logic, or lack of it, I never said I drove to work. You erroneously thought that. I do not go to work, nor do i need to. I derive a sufficient income from my financial empire. (None of it is rental income as i despise landlords). My decision to drive, or not, is not based on the views of fear mongering liberals.

        • Escierto says:

          Fear mongering liberals? What a joke. Certain right wing networks engage in fear mongering every minute of the day. Their audience cowers in their homes armed to the teeth fearing anyone who is the slightest bit different or younger than them. Home of the brave? HA!

        • Happy1 says:

          @Escierto, this is bipartisan, left wing media has Handmaids Tale type BS and electing so and so is “the end of Democracy” or “if so and so wins I’m moving to Europe”, biased media appeals to nut cases of either variety.

      • Bs ini says:

        Yes driving vs train no comparison to safety would much prefer train plane or walk
        When I lived in Denmark bike worked well also but in USA usually not bike friendly

        • Celt says:

          Chicago or NYC is not quite Denmark.

        • Happy1 says:

          A lot more more to physical safety than car accidents…

        • Wolf Richter says:

          Happy1

          Americans just accept in cold blood the 40,000 traffic fatalities a year and the 2 million people who get severely injured a year, and the many millions of accidents every year that cause property damage and only minor injuries or no injuries, and the high auto-insurance premiums to pay for it all. But when someone gets assaulted on a mass-transit system, it makes national news? Logic has long escaped humans. We’re not logical beings, we’re emotional beings.

        • Happy1 says:

          As an example, I was a frequent RTD train rider in Denver when it opened more than a decade ago for my downtown commute. The trains were clean and full of people headed to work. Post pandemic, with people working from home, and the associated anti police insanity, it’s a much less savory clientele on the trains, often used by transients and drug users getting out of the cold.

  9. Gattopardo says:

    When I was early in my career, I rode the Golden Gate Transit bus from Marin. I got lots of great reading done. Super nice buses. Glorious, loved it. Sometimes I’d take ferry instead, just for the awesomeness of it. As my hours changed, I switched to driving in. When my hours became flexible again later, I never went back to the bus. There’s something about the frictional costs of getting to the bus, walking to the office and then the reverse going home that overrode the efficiency of public transport. However, in DC, I always commuted in the Metro, and loved it.

    • Absur Ditty says:

      Busses are the best

      • Publius says:

        Wolf, why was this comment not moderated? Why must I read about kissing – eww! – on an economic/finance site?

      • robert says:

        Yes, flexibility in traffic. When a streetcar stops for mechanical reasons (and it happens quite often), there’s a huge lineup of them, and the cars behind them if there’s only one open traffic lane because parking.

        For the young ‘uns, a ‘buss’ was another term for ‘kiss’ in olden tymes.

  10. Max Power says:

    The BART stats dovetail perfectly with other, independently measured “return to the office” statistics which also show the same exact RTO trend nationwide… a rising trend until around the third quarter of 2022, then settling at a rate of around 50% of the pre-COVID rate and practically not changing.

    So, despite the flood of articles in the press and hoopla from employers about getting tougher on RTO mandates, on the ground this has not translated to any meaningful progress as far as getting employees back in buildings in well over a year now. Employers seem to say one thing when it comes to RTO but when it comes to actual enforcement it’s something else.

    I suspect over time we’ll see a very slow progression above that 50% trend line but it’s becoming obvious that despite what many employers and office landlords would have you believe, we’re definitely not going back to anywhere close to full office occupancy ever again.

    • Celt says:

      1% transit growth per year going forward.

    • Lune says:

      Right now labor has the advantage since the labor market is so tight. So employers are gritting their teeth and not pushing too hard to return to office.

      If / when the market cools and bosses have the upper hand again, I think you’ll see a massive return to the office. There may be some cohort of companies that willingly adopt wfh permanently but it’s definitely not 50%. Maybe 10-20%?

  11. RickV says:

    My wife and I are retired. We have two cars and put 3000 mi on the hybrid and 9000 mi on the EV so we are bringing the average mileage numbers down. The lower miles driven has the added advantage of bringing the annual maintenance cost and insurance cost down on both vehicles.

  12. Shiloh1 says:

    Hi Wolf. Do people still try to spin the odometers backwards with a drill on the cable, or is that impossible with digital?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      1. This data has ZERO to do with mileage on the odometer. If you thought that this data was from odometers, RTGDFA.

      2. If you even succeed in rolling back the odometer somehow, you will get caught and cooked instantly because every time the car has been taken to the shop in the past, such as to get new tires or fix the water pump, or for the emissions and safety inspection, or when insurance adjusters look at it over the years, the mileage is noted, and it shows up in CarFax. IF the vehicle is connected, such as for the navigation system or in general, the miles the vehicle has been driving is known and recorded on a day by day basis.

      Obviously, if you have a 30-year old pickup, you can do pretty much whatever you want because it probably won’t pass emissions and safety inspections anyway.

  13. Depth Charge says:

    I have never seen the roads so packed in my life. They printed so much money that we are in what I would call a “hyperbubble.” The consumption is off the charts, and the roads, restaurants and stores paint the picture.

  14. Prof. Emeritus says:

    Interesting to see the US numbers – European office attendance is around similar levels, but public transporation is back to 70-80% of pre-COVID levels – in some countries even matching that!

    The trick is that many European countries hacked the ridership statistics with super-cheap or even outright free public transportation tickets. So despite increasing car ownership and decreasing public transportation participation rates they were able to increase the sheer number of rides taken – the poorest people started going further and more often, taking jobs in other cities or going on wekend holidays with the bus or train (a notable example is the lovely North Sea town of Sylt becoming a frequent camping site for punks). A bizarre, but interesting social experiment – wonder how long it will keep up. Some experts warn it’s going to be a complete disaster if the European middle-class opts out of the public transportation, like it happened in some US towns. Overall trust in public transportation is massively down in countries such as Germany and the UK due to strikes and reliability issues.

    On the other end of the issue you got millions of people fleeing from public transportation that are looking for small, cheap to run used vehicles. But those weren’t manufactured in Europe by the millions in the previous decade, so while used premium car prices are deflating, the lower end of the market remains expensive. There are Italian used car dealers travelling from auction to auction all over the continent trying to find Fiats with the right emission category, it’s crazy.

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