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How are we transporting ourselves? Part 1

Vehicle miles before, during, and after the pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, many Americans stopped driving due to stay-at-home orders across the nation. And our FRED graph above shows that total vehicle miles traveled plummeted.

But cars weren’t parked for long: As the US began to emerge from the initial shutdowns, vehicle miles quickly returned to where they were in 2019.

How can we reconcile the rise in remote work since the pandemic with this car-driving rebound? Arbogast, Gascon, and Spewak researched this question in late 2019 and found that people who worked from home actually tended to drive more miles than people who commuted to work. And this trend seems to have continued since the pandemic.

A myriad of reasons could explain this. For example, people could choose to live in cheaper areas that are further away from urban centers, but still value the urban amenities that require them to drive into town. As 2024 nears, the US is seeing more people move toward the suburbs and other car-dependent areas, which could help explain why vehicle miles rebounded more quickly than other modes of transportation, such as public transit. In part 2 of this post, we’ll examine public transit ridership more closely.

How this graph was created: Search FRED for “Vehicle Miles Traveled” and click on the result that is seasonally adjusted.

Suggested by Charles Gascon and Jack Fuller.

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