Sightline Report: Northwest Gas Consumption Hits Historic Lows

A new report finds Northwesterners are using gasoline at rates not seen since the 1960s, as per-capita vehicle travel plateaued in the 1990s, vehicle efficiency has improved, and younger residents are less interested in driving especially.

The report, titled Shifting Into Reverse, comes from Seattle-based Sightline Institute. Sightline's researchers find that per capita gasoline consumption in Oregon has fallen to its lowest level since 1962, which was a year when a gallon of gas cost just 31 cents! The decline is expected to continue through 2012.

Why the difference? On the one hand, vehicles have become significantly more efficient in recent decades, a trend that will only become stronger with new fuel-efficiency standards approved by the White House this week. But Sightline cautions that it can take over a decade for higher-efficiency vehicles to really penetrate the market, and average vehicle efficiency has not changed dramatically enough to account for the decline in fuel consumption.

More significantly, people are simply driving less in the Northwest--young people especially. It's not a recession-related trend, either; it has been happening for well over a decade. (Update, September 5: The Oregon Department of Transportation has released new figures showing that vehicle miles traveled on state highways fell again last year.)

What does it mean for Oregon and Washington? As the report notes, it means a lot less money is being drained to out-of-state and foreign petroleum companies, though $127 billion left the region for those purposes in the last decade. But it is also leading to major declines in gas tax revenue, signalling that big, expensive highway and road projects will become more untenable in the years to come.

The conclusion is clear: we can't build roads like it's the 1960s anymore. Oregon leaders at all levels need to adjust their transportation priorities and plans for the current century, to reflect that fact that Oregonians are driving less. They should focus on more efficient use of land and infrastructure, reducing the impluse to build projects that we simply can't afford under our current system. As the Sightline authors note, "these trends all call for a comprehensive and public re-evaluation of the costs, benefits, and long-term financing plans for major highway expansions in the region."

The report goes into a lot more depth about indications for future declines and what it means for transportation agencies in the Northwest. It's worth reading closely, and passing along to leaders and friends, so we can begin to adjust how we envision and plan for transportation projects of all size. Download the whole thing here.