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The end of motoring?

An in depth Guardian article highlights an issue that has been commented on a few times recently, the question of are we reaching peak travel? Or perhaps more specifically, is the golden age of the car over?

In Britain, the percentage of 17- to 20-year-olds with driving licences fell from 48% in the early 1990s to 35% last year. The number of miles travelled by all forms of domestic transport, per capita per year, has flatlined for years. Meanwhile, road traffic figures for cars and taxis, having risen more or less every year since 1949, have continued to fall since 2007. Motoring groups put it down to oil prices and the economy. Others offer a more fundamental explanation: the golden age of motoring is over.

“The way we run cars is changing fast,” says Tim Pollard, associate editor at CAR magazine, “Car manufacturers are worried that younger people in particular don’t aspire to own cars like we used to in the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s. Designers commonly say that teenagers today aspire to own the latest smartphone more than a car. Even car enthusiasts realise we’ve reached a tipping point.”

Certainly if you look at traffic volumes on state highways across New Zealand over the past few years you can see a similar ‘levelling off’ of the previously constant increase.  The article goes on to discuss some of the possible causes of this levelling off:

David Metz’s account of underlying transport trends is simple: ultimately, we don’t want to travel more. “Look at the [Department for Transport's] National Travel Survey, an annual poll of 20,000 people, dating back to the early 70s. The average travel time has not changed over that period. The number of journeys that people make in a year hasn’t altered. It’s about 1,000 journeys a year, and about an hour’s travel per day.”

This figure for daily travel is remarkably consistent. Look at Tanzanian villagers in 1986 or Britons today, and we all seem to travel, on average, for about 66 minutes a day. What did rise, in Britain at least from the 70s through to the 90s, was the distance people covered. “In the early 70s, it’s about 4,500 miles per person per year, which includes all modes of travel except international travel by air, which is a different story,” says Metz. “It rose to about 7,000 miles per year by the mid 1990s, and it stayed steady at about that level since.”

Metz also thinks a general satisfaction with the number of places people can go has lead to this levelling-off; he calls this the saturation of demand.

“What is the benefit of travel?” he asks. “It’s about getting more choices of places to go – the choice we have of jobs, doctors, hospitals, schools for our kids. My hypothesis is that the growth of daily travel has come to an end because now we have quite good choice.”

It is certainly an interesting concept to think of the demand for travel now being somewhat saturated. Obviously where you still have population growth you will theoretically also have an increase in travel demand, but perhaps on a per-capita basis the inexorable increase is no longer happening.

Metz isn’t the only academic to think that the demand for ever more travel may have finally been satisfied:

Other analysts agree. “There are these models used by international agencies, and oil companies and the like,” says Adam Millard-Ball, assistant professor at the department of geography of McGill University, Montreal. “They say as we get richer, we’ll want to travel more. There’s no limit. Our hunch was that this might not be the case.”

Working with the late Lee Schipper, a senior research engineer at Stanford University, Millard-Ball examined travel figures dating back to the 70s, from as many industrialised countries as possible. “The data that we have shows fairly clearly that the growth in travel demand has stopped in every industrialised country that we looked at,” he says. Schipper and Millard-Ball published their work last November in the paper Are We Reaching Peak Travel? Trends in Passenger Transport in Eight Industrialized Countries, adding to a growing body of work, all drawing similar conclusions. If these trends continue, it is possibly foresee a decline in car travel and a stagnation in total travel per capita.

Though he doesn’t have any firm evidence to back it up, Millard-Ball thinks infrastructure plays a big part. “During the 70s and 80s we were building a lot more roads, allowing people to go further and faster. That era has come to an end, especially in Britain and America.”

Unfortunately here in New Zealand we seem somewhat determined to keep building motorways, despite traffic volumes not increasing over the past five years.

Demographic change, and the increasing popularity of urban areas is also given as a possible cause for what’s been happening over the past few years:

Break down the figures further, and other tendencies arise. Metz says the proportion of men in their 30s who drive has remained steady, while twenty somethings appear to be putting off getting behind the wheel until it’s absolutely necessary. “It’s partly the cost of ownership, the cost of insurance,” he says. “Other factors that are more speculative are that there are more people in higher education, which typically takes place in urban centres where the car isn’t part of the mix. Then people stay on in these urban centres.”

He also says retirees often give up driving once they begin to suffer from minor disabilities.

“If you retire to a place with high population density, then mobility scooters come into their own.” These electric vehicles haven’t been thoroughly researched, and mass production hasn’t quite brought automobile-industry standards. Yet he believes they could become a viable transport option for many people, even if they can only do 8mph, “and that’s a bit fast for pavements”.

I tend to think that there are a large number of different reasons for the trends we see for traffic volumes in New Zealand in recent years. These include shorter-term issues like a fairly stagnant economy and rising unemployment, fluctuating issues like petrol prices but also perhaps these longer term, cultural shifts. If you’re really keen on staying connected with the world via your iPhone, iPad or whatever, it’s much easier to do so while catching the bus or train to university/work than it is while driving. If your trip is an hour each day, then the ability to spend that hour doing something more worthwhile than avoiding driving into the car in front of you is perhaps becoming more and more attractive.

Which does all make it seem rather strange that that government wants to spend over $36 billion on land transport (mainly building more roads) over the next decade.

14 comments to The end of motoring?

  • Gary Young

    So from the chart it appears that traffic volumes in 2010 were only around 75 percent of what was predicted. Which suggests that all current predictions of future traffic growth are overestimates and wrong or at least flawed.

    If current trends are maintained it would seem there is, logically, no future demand for new roads.

    • dan carter

      This to me is the perfect example of national being the opposite of their stereotype. They cannot be trusted to spend tax payers money wisely.

      At a time of cutbacks, unemployment, and growing government debt, you need to get smarter with your spend, but instead national are looking at raising petrol tax to spend absolutely massive amounts on highways, that the growth trends show aren’t pressing, and whose contribution to employment is small relative to the dollars spent.

      This is an absolute gift for Labour to put a massive dent in Nationals strong image of economic competency. Putting up taxes, and massive growth in state spending, not things National would like to be known for.

      • Ingolfson

        National’s argument is that roads spending = boosting the economy. In their view (and that of many of their voters), reduced congestion is good, reducing congestion by building more roads is better (nevermind the practical fallacy of fighting obesity by letting out one’s belt). Further, this is “just” a reduction in added traffic. Meaning that voter X may still sit in a traffic jam every second morning, so the comments from traffic nerds like us sound hollow to him.

        I sadly don’t agree with your perception that Kiwis are ripe for having a case made against National on a roads basis. It is starting to have a creeping effect, but by no means are the general public aware enough of this issue (Labour’s fault, to a big degree).

        Also, National is not putting up taxes, they are cutting services…

  • greenwelly

    While ipads and cultural shift may ba part of it, I think another part could be the rise of cheap air travel , Brits heading to spain and the African islands on the multitude of discount carriers, Kiwis going to Oz instead of holidaying at home.

    People arn’t travelling less, they are actually travelling more, just by air rather than by car (or travelling internationally, when in the past they may have domestically driven to a vacation)

    as noted by Metz “which includes all modes of travel except international travel by air, which is a different story,”

    Stats a few days ago noted that in August a record number of NZers left for a short term overseas holiday,
    annual numbers have gone from 1.3m in 2001 to over 2.1 m this year, up 60% over 10 years, these people are likely to have possibly holidayed in country and possibly driven prior to low cast airlines.

    • Do you know what the breakdown of intercity vs. regional traffic is? Because air travel is a substitute for intercity traffic only, and if almost all traffic is regional, then it can’t really be about a mode shift toward air. How much car travel can be substituted by overseas flights?

      • The figures I have seen for NZ suggest it’s relatively small. Your average suburban arterial road in Auckland carries more daily vehicles than most sections of state highway 1, for example.

  • George D

    I think we’re seeing a generational shift.

    Among students, web more important than car:
    http://web.hbr.org/email/archive/dailystat.php

    As greenwelly notes above, air travel is destroying the concept that a car is needed to get from point A to B. It’s almost always cheaper to fly in NZ (than drive a single occupant vehicle 500km), and certainly faster. And of course, we’re more likely than ever to pop over to Sydney for a weekend, rather than visit the Bay of Islands.

    • David

      That survey question is senseless and the answers mean nothing. Even if it did make sense, has it really changed over the years? WOuld someone have preferred a car over a phone in the 80s?

  • In case we’ve all got complacent about petrol availability and price have a read of this….. and do tell me if you really think building only for road vehicles is anywhere near prudent:

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8410#more

    • Ingolfson

      Patrick, few or any here think so. But not very useful as an election argument though, because most people have short memories, and fuel is comparatively cheap at the moment again. Recession and all.

  • Golfy, you’re right of course, but I wasn’t thinking I was influencing the election, but rather just drawing attention to a good new analysis for like minds at transportblog.

  • Ari

    I just can’t understand how supposedly intelligent people can ignore this information so blindly. Where is that data for the graph from? NZTA? If so how can they ignore their own data? Madness.

    • arnie03

      I believe the party line is something along the lines of ‘it’s the recession, great time to build new roads so we are are ready for when it all takes off again’. Looking closely at the graph it would seem a few were trading on inside information when it came to the recession’s timing.

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