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Today in Energy

April 21, 2011

Vehicle use varies across U.S. regions

map of vehicle use across U.S. regions, as described in the article text

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration based on U.S. Department of Transportation, Highway Statistics 2008,
Table PS-1

Reliance on vehicles can vary significantly across the United States. On average, drivers in densely-populated States in the Northeast tend to drive fewer miles than drivers in States such as Mississippi, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Minnesota with greater rural and suburban populations.

The U.S. Department of Transportation produces statistics at the State level, including vehicle-miles traveled (VMT) by light-duty vehicles (vehicles with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating of under 10,000 pounds, such as passenger cars, light-duty trucks, sport utility vehicles, and commercial light-duty trucks). Dividing the VMT by the number of licensed drivers in each State provides an estimate of how intensively a State's licensed drivers use their vehicles for a given year: vehicle-miles traveled per licensed driver (VMT per driver). State data are aggregated to the Census division level in the map above.

This metric is related to several factors, including the mix of urban, suburban, and rural areas within a State and the availability of alternative modes of transportation. VMT per driver is lowest in areas with well-established alternative modes, such as the District of Columbia (rail, bus, and walking). States such as New Jersey, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are less reliant on vehicles since their metropolitan areas have access to bus and rail systems. In contrast, geographically large and sparsely-populated States such as Mississippi, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Minnesota have populations that are much more likely to live in rural and suburban areas and thus have less access to modes of travel other than light-duty vehicles. The Pacific States, specifically California, consist of geographically large areas with several heavily populated cities offering multiple transit options.

Even within a State, reliance on vehicles can have a significant range, such as the difference between New York City and upstate New York, or Seattle and eastern Washington State. Personal vehicle travel is also influenced by several short-term factors such as weather and the price of gasoline. Long-term demand for personal vehicle travel is projected in the Annual Energy Outlook 2011 Early Release using such factors as the fuel cost of driving per mile, the number of vehicles per licensed driver, and economic factors including disposable income and unemployment rates.