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VMT Per Capita

Indicator Description

Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per capita is calculated as the total annual miles of vehicle travel divided by the total population in a state or in an urbanized area. Data for this indicator come from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), 2011 Highway Statistics. The reports are based on individual state reports on traffic data counts collected through permanent automatic traffic recorders on public roadways. Data on VMT for urbanized areas are available from the FHWA Highway Statistics Series. These data are calculated as the total daily miles of vehicle travel in an urbanized area divided by the total population. An urbanized area is defined as an area with 50,000 persons that at a minimum encompasses the land area delineated as the urbanized area by the U.S. Census Bureau.                                                                           

Related Strategies

Transportation and Health Connection

Decreasing annual VMT per capita can directly improve air quality and the overall health of a population. How much depends on the types of vehicles on the road (Johnson, 2006). Higher VMT also equates to increased sedentary time. A study in Atlanta, Georgia found that each additional hour per day spent in a car was associated with a 6% increase in a person’s risk for obesity (Frank et al, 2004). Since 2004, total VMT in the U.S. has declined slowly. In 2012, total VMT reached the lowest level since 1996 (State Smart Transportation Initiative, 2013). This decline might reflect a large variety of factors. These include the interaction of newly implemented land use policies, active transportation infrastructure and encouragement, economic factors, and other strategies to reduce car-dependence.

About the Data

The Federal Highway Administration reports total VMT as an annual average for states and daily average for Federal-Aid Urbanized Areas (FAUA). FHWA uses the term Federal-Aid Urban Area to distinguish the adjusted urban area boundaries allowed for transportation purposes from those designated by the Census Bureau. Although the data set is robust, it is not without some limitations. Only 4,000 automatic traffic recorders on public roadways throughout all 50 states collect the data, and traffic is recorded primarily on major highways and roads (U.S. DOT, 2011). As a result, local traffic might be underestimated in some states that have high levels of through-traffic related to longer trips.

Moving Forward

VMT levels are lower in communities that are more walkable and compact and in communities that have strong public transportation systems. Increased population density is also associated with lower VMT per capita (ChangeLab Solutions, 2007; U.S. EPA, 2013). Continued research is needed on the effectiveness of policies to decrease VMT per capita. Some strategies that have shown success include public transportation expansion and service improvement, active transportation infrastructure, and higher parking fees (Carlson and Howard, 2010). Transportation decision makers can use data on VMT per capita to track the effects of implemented policies and strategies to reduce traffic on the road. The data can also help in evaluating policies and strategies that support improved public health outcomes related to air quality, road traffic injuries and fatalities, and physical activity from transportation.


Carlson D, Howard Z. Impacts of VMT Reduction Strategies on Selected Areas and Groups. Washington State Department of Transportation; 2010. *

Federal Highway Administration. Policy Information Travel Monitoring, Frequently Asked Questions; 2013.

Frank LD, Anderson M, Schmid T. Obesity relationships with community design, physical activity, and time spent in cars.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine; 2004:27(2):87-96.

Johnson RA. Review of U.S. and European Regional Modeling Studies of Policies Intended to Reduce Motorized Travel, Fuel Use, and Emissions. Victoria Transportation Institute; 2006. *

State Smart Transportation Initiative. Per capita VMT ticks down for eighth straight year; 2013.

The Planning Perspective on Health: Community Health as a Goal of Good Design. ChangeLab Solutions; 2007.

U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration: Office of Highway Policy Information Highway Statistics Series. Highway Statistics 2011: Urbanized Areas – 2010, Miles and Daily Vehicle – Miles of Travel; 2011.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Our Built and Natural Environments: A Technical Review of the Interactions Among Land Use, Transportation, and Environmental Quality; 2013.

* Indicates research that supports policies analyzed

† Indicates research that supports equity or vulnerable populations studied

Updated: Tuesday, February 2, 2016
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