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U.S. vehicle travel fell 8.6% in September, lowest drop since pandemic start

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. motorists drove 8.6% fewer miles in September, marking the smallest monthly decline since the coronavirus pandemic forced millions of Americans to begin working from home in March.

The Federal Highway Administration said on Friday road travel fell by 23.4 billion vehicle miles in September, but it was up 2.8% over August and the first time that travel fell by less than 10% since February. In the first nine months of 2020, Americans have driven 355.5 billion miles, down 14.5%, the lowest number in that period since 2000.

Rural travel fell by about 5% in September, while urban traffic is down about 10%.

In contrast, travel fell by 39.8% in April amid state-at-home orders with Connecticut, Hawaii and New Jersey reporting around 50% drops that month.

Volkswagen VOWG_p.DE Group of America Chief Executive Scott Keogh said at a Reuters Events conference on Friday the number of first-time U.S. car buyers had grown during the pandemic, up from a historic 3-4% average to about 11%.

“It’s clearly a signal that people have some doubts in public transportation, potentially some doubts in ride-share,” Keogh said.

California Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols told Reuters on Thursday that “driving is back up again, way ahead of opening of a lot of stores or offices.”

“The need and the desire that people have to be able to get out of their houses or their apartments and go someplace appears to one of the kind of basic human drives,” Nichols said.

Mass transit demand has been devastated in large part of because of people’s fears of the coronavirus, she added. “It’s actually leading to an increase in sales of old cars for people who might have taken a bus before.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Richard Chang

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