Milwaukee and Madison driving less and cycling more

For the last 7 years Milwaukee and Madison have been at the forefront of a trend in which people across the nation are driving less and choosing instead to ride bikes, take transit and walk. At this point we don’t know for sure if the trend will continue as it is likely caused by a mix of the recession and changing demographic preferences as the baby boomers age and preferences of Millennial drivers have a greater impact. A number of recently published comprehensive studies suggest and revenue from the gas tax drops, we might want to align our transportation policies more closely with our revenue stream, putting an end to ever-expanding highways and investing more in other modes according to changing national preferences.

According to  Transportation in Transition, by U.S. Public Inerest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), the Milwaukee and Madison urbanized areas , saw the second and third largest drops in per-capita Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the nation: down 21 % and 18 % respectively. At the same time, the number of people reporting they bike to work increased 280 % in Milwaukee and 219 % in Madison. The data for the report came from the Federal Highway Administration’s Highway Statistics and the annual American Community Survey.


Milwaukee and Madison are among the national leaders in the decline of vehicle miles traveled. Table from U.S. Pirg Report TRANSPORTATION IN TRANSITION

This data from the American Community survey shows the long rise in number of people bicycling in Milwaukee and Madison. Click the image to open a larger PDF that is easier to read.

The full report is filled with lots of detailed analysis that shows this decline in driving is happening nationwide, which has not been a secret since the decline began in 2005. The report cites a number reasons for the decline in driving:

  • Rising Use of Bicycling, and Transit: Americans are increasingly choosing other modes of transportation – light rail, buses, trains, bicycles or walking – for trips they might once have taken by car. The recent advent of new technologies – from carsharing to real-time transit information – as well as the preference of members of the Millennial generation for walkable places and a wider variety of transportation options – has accelerated the trend toward reduced driving.
  • Rising Cost of Gasoline
  • Fewer people working – The recession is one reason for the decline in driving, but other studies show the decline to be more closely linked to other factors than it is to the economy,
  • Declining Vehicle Ownership – the number of vehicles per licensed driver has declined by 4 percent since 2006

This chart shows that miles driven per capita has been on the decline since 2005.

While the decline in driving has been widely reported because it has reduced the amount of gas taxes collected, which has force states to shift general fund taxes into the transportation fund (Wisconsin transferred $133 million) and increase bonding, or borrowing to build and repair roads and highways (which Wisconsin also did in our current biennial budget).

This map shows some of the states least effected by the economic slowdown still showed big declines in driving. “Moving Off the Road A State-by-State Analysis of the National Decline in Driving,” by U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Ironically, this transportation funding crisis is often cited as a reason to cut spending on bicycling and transit. That might not make any sense to you if you are one of the many people who is riding your bike more or taking transit more often. It defies logic that our elected leaders would cut funds to bicycling and walking if they are growing in popularity. It makes little fiscal sense to borrow money to continue to widening freeways that are getting less use when small investments in bicycling and transit have proven to have such a high return.

The recession clearly had a big impact on driving, but studies show states least effected by the economic problems showed some of the biggest declines. What if the driving boom does not bounce back?

A common reason given by elected officials and transportation officials is that they believe the decline in driving is related to the recession and will rebound any day now. With such a long history of Americans driving more every year, and the decline coming after the recession, on face value that is a logical assumption, but  this report looked very carefully and found no clear relationship at the state level between the health of the local economy and the size if its decline in driving.

So what happens if the report is right and people continue to drive less? Wisconsin is making huge investments in Mega Freeway Projects that will cost us billions to rebuild our freeways for increased capacity that may never come. Not only will that be a huge waste of precious tax dollars now, but those bigger, wider, taller freeways come with an even bigger maintenance cost for future generations. With no appetite for higher gas taxes or tolls, we seem to be putting our children on the road to ruin.

Whether people continue to drive less or we begin to drive more, our current transportation funding system is not sustainable. We cannot afford to even maintain what we have without raising more revenue. The U.S. Pirg report makes this fiscally conservative, logically sound recommendation:

“Local, state and federal officials need to revisit their current transportation plans and transportation investment priorities in light of the recent changes in driving pat-terns. By doing so, decision-makers will be able to save money that might otherwise be wasted on unnecessary boondoggle highway projects and instead invest in other important priorities such as repair-ing our existing roads and bridges and expanding access to the broader range of transportation options – including public transit, bicycling and walking – that Americans increasingly seek.”

If you want to hear more about the study and how it directly relates to Wisconsin’s transportation funding issues, come to the media conference tomorrow in Milwaukee. Details are below:

Study to Show Milwaukee, Madison Top National List of Cities Where People are Driving Less 

Report on Driving, Public Transit, and Biking Trends Also Compares to Other Urbanized Areas Across the Nation

What: WISPIRG Foundation will release a first-of-its-kind report showing that on average, residents of Milwaukee are driving less, and how that compares to trends in each of America’s largest 100 urbanized areas.  The report will show the latest government data on changes in automobile use, public transit travel and biking in Milwaukee and Madison.  Data will show how these trends in Wisconsin cities compare to major cities in other states.

Who:     Bob Bauman, Milwaukee Alderman

State Representative Evan Goyke

Bruce Speight, WISPIRG Director

When: Wednesday, December 11th, 10AM

Where: Milwaukee City Hall Rotunda

200 E. Wells St.

Milwaukee, WI 53202


Visuals: The event will include blown-up full-color maps and charts from the report.

About Dave Schlabowske, Deputy Director

Dave was the first full-time staff member hired to open the Bike Fed's Milwaukee office 15 years ago. A former professional photographer and life-long Milwaukee resident, Dave likes wool, long rides, sour beer, and a good polar vortex once in a while.

4 thoughts on “Milwaukee and Madison driving less and cycling more

  1. I am glad you posted the PDF with the annual Mode Share numbers. The American Community Survey has a notoriously large error margin. It drives me crazy when I see groups like the League of American Bicyclists or the PIRG groups publish this data without the error margins. At the very least they could round the numbers to the nearest hundred!

    I trust the year 2000 Census data–that was the last year that the Census surveyed enough people for the travel mode share to be really solid. But you could take these same “data” points and just as easily say that cycling has DECLINED in Milwaukee between 2008 and 2012. I don’t think that is the case, but that is what the “data” indicate. The number of cyclists are such a small share of the population that the projections in the ACS are heavily skewed depending on how many cyclists happen to be in the sample that take the ACS that year.


  2. 1. The North Dakota oil boom really sticks out on the change in VMT map.

    2. Time is coming where we need something other than people driving as primary means to fund transportation. One possibility is a transportation sales tax. At a national level, consumer spending is $10 trillion a year. If all of that was subject to a 1% sales tax, it would generate $100 billion which is 3 times what the current federal fuel taxes generate.

    • Greg,

      I thought the same thing when I saw that map.

      I think everyone on the transportation world agrees our current system is not sustainably funded, certainly the folks at WisDOT do. The problem is there is no political appetite to raise the gas tax, add tolls, charge per mile or even a sales talk. I don’t think that the cycling world is going to get much more money until that question is resolved.

      I am curious where you got your $10 trillion a year figure though. I typically hear about $200 billion in annual new car sales.

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