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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