I came across an interesting journal article the other day – entitled Are We Reaching Peak Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Eight Industrialized Countries by Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper. It is an interesting examination of an issue that I’ve been looking at in my analysis of recent traffic trends on roads in New Zealand – the idea that perhaps we’re shifting away from the decades long process of people travelling more and more each year. Here’s the abstract:
The general trend for the 20th century was that as time went on, and particularly, as the population got richer, they travelled more and more. The most basic reason behind this was that as incomes grew, people were able to afford more cars and airline tickets, and therefore travelled further and further. The graph below highlights this relationship for a number of industrialised countries:
Most of the graphs above do show a bit of a tailing off’ at the higher levels, showing that perhaps there’s a level of GDP per capita beyond which we don’t actually see the increases in travel activity that are visible with earlier increases. The article considers recent fuel price increases as a potential cause of this trend – although according to its calculations not the whole reason:
So what does this all mean? Well there are two big “elephants in the room” out there when it comes to transport policy: peak oil and climate change. What the data outlined above is potentially indicating is that the rising price of oil, plus other factors which suggest market saturation of vehicles, may mean that travel levels are lower than previously expected – helping us both minimise the impact of transport-based CO2 emissions on climate change and also slowly reducing our reliance on oil: which is likely to be a very good thing if oil becomes extremely expensive in the future.
In a sense, perhaps the market mechanisms are starting to work a bit: the higher price of oil weaning us off travelling further and further each year and buying more and more cars. This is why I think our best argument for investing in public transport at the moment is not the potential for oil to cost more in the future or for us to need to reduce CO2 emissions: but rather that we need to respond to choices people are already making, to use their cars less and ride the bus or train more.
It’s all about this:
Spending the vast majority of our transport budget on a part of the system with declining use, and constantly cutting funding for a part of the transport system with vastly increasing use is ignoring all the signals that form part of a longer term, fundamental shift in our transport system. It is just plain stupid.