Friday, May 25, 2007 | 7:27 a.m.
Regardless of the fact that area motorists likely waited in the same lines of commuter traffic this morning as they did last week or even last year, a new analysis says that for the first time in 26 years, Americans actually are driving fewer miles.
The USA Today analysis of Federal Highway Administration figures shows that the growth in the number of miles driven leveled off significantly in the past 18 months, with an increase of just 0.3 percent last year.
By comparison, the average annual growth in the number of miles driven from 1980 through 2005 was 2.7 percent.
The nation's population and workforce grow by a little more than 1 percent annually, USA Today reports, so the 0.3 percent increase in miles driven actually represents a decrease in the overall number of miles per person.
Transportation and urban planning experts told USA Today the reasons for this decline are gasoline prices, traffic congestion and demographic changes.
For example, the Baby Boom generation, which encompasses people born from 1946 through 1964, is aging, and people typically drive less after age 55. At the other end of the age spectrum, increasing numbers of young, single professionals are choosing to live in downtown areas closer to their jobs so they can use alternate modes of travel, experts told USA Today.
And traffic congestion in major cities has prompted more people to use public transit.
William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, told USA Today that more people used public transit in 2006 than at any other time in the past 49 years. Even suburban areas are expanding modes of public transit, with a new emphasis on commuter trains. Denver, St. Louis and Salt Lake City all started construction on commuter rail expansions last year. And officials in Phoenix and Kansas City, Mo., are starting to build rail systems.
The Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada wanted to build a rail system in the Las Vegas Valley, but residents living near the proposed corridor opposed it.
The RTC instead opted for a fixed guideway bus system. Still, as the need for public transit options grows it is likely a commuter rail system will, at some point, be discussed again in Las Vegas.
Of course, the factor that weighs heavily on the minds - and wallets - of most American motorists these days is the price of gasoline. According to the most recent AAA figures, a gallon of regular in the Las Vegas Valley costs $3.16, on average. And the price of gasoline likely is going take a bite out of the budgets of many travelers over this Memorial Day weekend.
Government has a role to play in this apparently changing transportation environment. Setting and enforcing strict fuel efficiency standards is one thing government could do. Congress is working with industry to develop a more energy-efficient light bulb, so it seems government should do likewise with automakers. And all levels of government should be working to make public transit and non-motorized transportation alternatives more efficient and more accessible to more people.
Ultimately, however, the decisions on how often and how far to drive are going to remain individual ones. And if the most recent figures are any indication, it seems as though most Americans are not only getting older, but perhaps they are also becoming a little wiser when it comes to determining how much time they want to spend sitting in traffic.