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NCST White Paper: What Affects U.S. Passenger Travel? Current Trends and Future Perspectives

UCD-ITS-RR-16-29

Research Report

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Suggested Citation:
Circella, Giovanni, Kate Tiedeman, Susan L. Handy, Farzad Alemi, Patricia L. Mokhtarian (2016) NCST White Paper: What Affects U.S. Passenger Travel? Current Trends and Future Perspectives. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-16-29

The United States is going through an era of unprecedented transformation. Sociodemographic changes, major innovations in information technology, the reorganization of economic activities, and substantial shifts in the urban form of cities all contribute to changing the way Americans live, work, and travel. During the past ten years, transportation demand in the United States has also gone through significant modifications. The use of private vehicles has gone through a period of apparent stagnation. Starting in the mid-2000s, the average per-capita vehicle miles traveled (VMT) have declined, at least temporarily (until 2013), after a long period of steady growth in the previous decades. In addition, an increased portion of Americans live without a car. While the total amount of trips in the country continues to rise, this has not translated into increased car use, and the use of alternative modes (including public transportation and active means of travel) is increasing, even if it still accounts for a rather low portion of mode share.

Passenger travel in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century is increasingly multimodal, and (slightly) less reliant on the use of private cars. Travelers are changing their behaviors in response to new alternatives available to them, changes in the characteristics of the old alternatives, and changes in the way they evaluate and value these characteristics. A complex combination of factors is behind the observed trends. The economic crisis from 2007-2009 certainly contributed to reducing total VMT in the country. However, it is not the main cause of the observed changes in travel behavior, and other factors seem to play an important role. In particular, several studies have demonstrated how the observed reduction in car travel actually predates the economic crisis by at least a few years.

This white paper discusses the forces affecting U.S. passenger travel, the permanence of which is often unclear. We explore travel demand’s relationship with explanatory factors such as economic activity, gas prices, urban form, socio-demographic traits and generational effects, the expanding availability of travel options (including electronic alternatives to travel) and technological innovations in the transportation sector (including the advent of emerging transportation and shared mobility services). We discuss how these factors modify the alternatives available to travelers, the characteristics of each alternative, and the way travelers perceive and evaluate these characteristics.