One of the most interesting things to note when it comes to transport trends over the past few years is the complete lack in growth of state highway traffic volumes since around 2005, with a little bumping around we actually find ourselves with the same level of traffic on our state highways in 2010 as we had in 2005: It’s perhaps a bit early to comprehensively know whether this is a short-term “bucking” of the long-term trend of inexorable growth – or something more permanent. Of course we have had a pretty major economic ‘situation’ over the past few years which is likely to have contributed to the flat-lining of traffic growth, but I tend to think that there’s something more long term at work here.
If you look at similar numbers in the USA, you can also see a pretty big anomaly to the long-term traffic growth rates over the past few years: There’s an obvious connection between the graph above and the one below, which shows a decline in the USA’s consumption of petroleum over the past few years: Along with the economic difficulties of the past few years I can’t help but think a core reason for these changes relates to the rising cost of fuel, which itself is fundamentally being caused by the increasing difficulty of finding more oil to pump. This is pretty obvious when you look at global oil supply levels over the past eight years: Perhaps the over-arching point to take from all these graphs is to ask the question about whether we really think it’s likely that we’ll return to the days of the 1990s and early 2000s when traffic grew consistently each year by a few percentage points – putting increasing pressure on the transport system and making the argument for building more and more roads. Or, alternatively, is the current situation part of a longer term trend, something we’re also seeing in overseas countries like the USA, caused by the inability to increase oil supply (and therefore increasing prices)? If the answer is the latter, then perhaps we need to truly fundamentally rethink our approach to transport, because if the number of cars on the road system isn’t increasing, then it’s pretty hard to argue that we need to increase the capacity of the road network.