Americans pumped up over cheap gas, driving more than ever before

Anybody who drives 55 mph on Minnesota highways can confirm what the Washington Post is reporting about our driving habits: We’re not at all interested in savings a few bucks no matter what the cost of gasoline these days.

The number of vehicle miles traveled in 2015 finally surpassed the highs last seen in 2007, before the Great Recession, the Post says. That’s enough to make 337 round trips to Pluto.

But part of the apparent increase is due to an increase in the population since 2007.

Still, last year was a big year for driving. Total vehicle miles increased by more than 4 percent, the biggest year-over-year jump since the late 1980s. And the reason why can be summed up in two simple words: cheap gas.

With gas currently at $1.71 per gallon, it hasn’t been this affordable to drive since 2004. In places like Missouri and Oklahoma, gas costs less than $1.50 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association.

If it’s cheap to drive, people are going to drive. They’re also going to be less worried about fuel efficiency. Back in October 2007, the average fuel efficiency of purchased new vehicles was about 20 miles per gallon, according to the University of Michigan. As gas prices rose, so did average fuel efficiency — peaking at 25.8 miles per gallon in August 2014. Since then efficiency has plateaued and even declined slightly, down to 25.1 miles per gallon in January.

The net result is more congestion, not only because there are more cars, but because federal spending on transportation infrastructure as declined from 6 percent of all spending in the ’60s to less than 3 percent in 2014, the Post says.

Related: Downtown St. Paul road closure brings traffic jams (MPR News)