TPB News

Population up, but area travel holding steady

Apr 26, 2016
Metro.Commute.2

Total driving on area roadways has stayed more or less steady since 2007 despite a 14% increase in population.
Total driving on area roadways has stayed more or less steady since 2007 despite a 14% increase in population.

One of the most interesting findings from a recent TPB analysis of regional travel trends is that while the area’s population has grown in recent years, travel by car and transit has stayed more or less steady. According to the researchers behind the analysis, the main reasons lie in shifting demographics and how we use technology.

Population increases haven’t translated into more travel

First, let’s compare the region’s population growth with changes in driving and transit ridership. Between 2007 and 2015, the region’s population grew by about 670,000 people to 5.47 million – a 14% increase.

But that population growth didn’t translate into more driving. In 2015 the total vehicle-miles traveled on area roads was just 1% higher than in 2007, and the average daily driving per person was actually 12% lower.

Transit ridership has been flat or declining, too. Average weekday Metrorail ridership is about where it was eight years ago. That’s the case for Metrobus, too. Local bus and commuter rail ridership increased during that time, but total transit ridership only nudged up slightly. Transit ridership has increased only slightly since 2007, thanks mostly to increases in local bus and commuter rail ridership.
Transit ridership has increased only slightly since 2007, thanks mostly to increases in local bus and commuter rail ridership.

So what’s going on?

The TPB’s researchers point first to the region’s changing demographics. They say that the fastest-growing age group is adults over 55, a group that tends to travel less than younger people who are in their prime working years and might also be raising families.

The other fastest-growing age group is adults 25 to 34 years old, who the TPB’s researchers say are traveling less on average than their similarly aged counterparts a few decades ago.

Growth in age groups that tend to travel less overall (25-34 and 55 ) is one reason why travel on area roads and transit is holding steady even as population is on the rise.
Growth in age groups that tend to travel less overall (25-34 and 55 ) is one reason why travel on area roads and transit is holding steady even as population is on the rise.

Technology is probably the biggest factor at play. Younger adults are more likely to take advantage of digital communication and entertainment technologies, which make it possible for them to stay in touch with friends and family or to watch movies or play games without leaving home. Young people have also been moving to neighborhoods where they can meet more of their daily needs on foot or by bicycle, which means less reliance on driving and can even mean fewer trips by transit.

The other key role of technology has been that it gives workers of all ages the freedom to work from almost any location. According to the travel trends analysis, more and more people in our region are teleworking. In 2013, 27% of area workers reported teleworking at least occasionally, up from just 11% in 2001. Another 1 in 3 workers say they could telework if they wanted or needed to. And nearly 5% of the region’s workers work almost entirely at home. Teleworking can have a significant impact on overall travel since people that telework most often tend to be those who normally have longer-distance commutes that put more stress on the regional highway and transit networks. Significant growth in teleworking is also partly responsible for the lack of growth in travel despite a rising population.
Significant growth in teleworking is also partly responsible for the lack of growth in travel despite a rising population.

Put technology and demographics together and we can understand a big part of why a rising population hasn’t necessary translated into more people on our roads, trains, and buses. The TPB’s researchers will continue to monitor these trends and to explore how shifting demographics, technological advances, and other changes alter travel patterns in the region. These changes could affect the way the region plans for its future transportation needs.

Other key takeaways from the analysis

  • Transit, biking, and teleworking are gaining popularity: The share of commuters driving or carpooling to work is declining in favor of transit, biking, or teleworking.
  • Traffic congestion is lower now than five years ago: Although peak-period delay has increased somewhat in recent years, it is still lower now than in 2010.
  • People are flying again: Preliminary data from 2015 show that the number of people flying in and out of the region’s airports was up significantly last year after holding more or less steady since 2010.

See the full analysis of regional travel trends

Other takes on our data

Travel trends show power of telecommuting (The Washington Post) Telecommuters cut DC-area traffic by 10 percent, report says (NBC4)

Photo: Commute by Daniel Lobo on Flickr

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