How much less can Americans drive?

At what point does our energy crisis become an infrastructure crisis?

Bicycle commuters riding along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.

Back in May, when gas hit a then-record $3.73 a gallon, I wrote about how some reports were suggesting that Americans are cutting back on driving. It turns out that this phenomenon was more than a temporary blip: New data from the Department of Transportation reveals that driving slid for the eighth straight month in June.

According to the DOT, Americans drove 12.2 billion miles less in June than they did in June 2007, a drop of 4.7 percent. That's the largest monthly drop since the decline began in November.

A press release from the DOT says that, since November, Americans have driven 53.2 billion fewer miles than they did over the same period a year earlier, a drop that is more pronounced than the drop that occurred during the 1970s, a era marked by severe gas shortages. Rural travel has fallen 4 percent since late last year, while urban driving has fallen only 1.2 percent.

The biggest declines seem to occur in big states with wide open spaces. Driving was down 6.1 percent in Alaska, 6.2 percent in Kansas, 7 percent in Maine, 7.7 percent in Montana, 6.7 percent in Nevada, 6.9 percent in Washington, and 6.8 percent in Wyoming.

The Associated Press supplements the DOT's data with a poll of the over-50 crowd, in which more than two-thirds say that high gas prices have prompted them to drive less.

Four in 10 said they have used public transportation, walked or ridden a bicycle more frequently since gas prices have risen, according to the AARP poll, which was being released Wednesday.
Elinior Ginzler, AARP's senior vice president for livable communities, said she's concerned that communities don't have adequate sidewalks, bus shelters, bike lanes and public transportation options as more people look for other means to get around.
"More Americans age 50-plus are trying to leave their cars behind but face obstacles as soon as they walk out the door, climb on their bikes or head for the bus," Ginzler said.

While a drop in driving is certainly positive from an environmental perspective – it directly translates into lower greenhouse gas emissions and more breathable air – all this suggests that many Americans, particularly those living outside of cities, are getting squeezed by high gas prices.

How about you? Do you have to drive to get to the supermarket? To get to work? To visit your friends and family? To attend your place of worship, if you have one? If you're like most Americans, you'll answer yes to all of the above, and just going about your life has been getting more expensive lately.

And how much can you reduce your driving before it starts to seriously impact your way of life? In other words, what's your baseline?

Maybe our energy crisis is also, in part, an infrastructure crisis. If more of us had access to public transit, if more of our neighborhoods had sidewalks and safe bike lanes, if more of us could buy our necessities on Main Street instead of at the strip mall on the outskirts of town, then our baseline would be lower, and maybe the spike in gas prices wouldn't hit us so hard.

A lot of Americans would like to see these kinds of infrastructure improvements. One survey found that 40 percent of households would like to live in walkable urban areas. And, as I noted in my blog post in May, a survey by Rodale Press found that 40 percent of Americans say they would bike to work if they felt it was safer, and a 2008 Zogby poll found that 53 percent of Americans would take mass transit if it were close to their home and work.

But it seems that there is little political will to curb America's car culture. Even as record ridership is straining mass transit, transportation officials seem more concerned about maintaining roads. In late July, amid worries that decreased driving is depleting federal funding for road upkeep, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters proposed a short-term solution of borrowing money from mass transit funding.

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