Hindsight may show that the transport sector is in the midst of unprecedented change.
NZTA’s latest report on state highway traffic shows that volumes were down 1.2% in 2011. And if you look further back you can see that total vehicle volumes on the state highway network have been static since around 2004. In the same period, New Zealand’s population has increased by approximately 7%, while real GDP grew by around 11% (Sources: Statistics NZ and Reserve Bank of NZ). Taken together, this data suggests that per capita demand for vehicle travel has declined by around 1% per annum in the last seven years.
The plateau in vehicle volumes since 2004 is an unprecedented change from the last century, when we experienced consistent growth in vehicle travel.
In the 1950s and 60s this growth was largely driven by a combination of increasing vehicle ownership and sustained low fuel prices. And then in the 80s and 90s increased workforce participation (i.e. baby boomers and two-income households) caused a second spurt in the demand for vehicle travel. Throughout this whole time drivers were aided and abetted (albeit unintentionally) by poor planning/pricing practises that subsidized vehicles over other modes of travel. Homogenous land use zoning and minimum parking requirements being among the most notable (despicable?).
Since 2004, however, this momentum has clearly dissipated: Vehicle volumes on New Zealand’s state highway network have been static or even falling. And as this earlier post notes very similar trends are emerging overseas, even in countries that are considered to be ‘culturally remote’ from NZ. This in turn suggests that the emerging trends in state highway traffic volumes in New Zealand are not a localised abberation, but in fact reflect broader forces that are changing people’s travel choices.
NB: The graph uses data up to 2007, which was the peak in NZ’s highway traffic volumes. More recent data would show a longer plateau or even the beginning of a downward trend. Nonetheless, a marked slowdown is already apparent in most of these countries.
So what gives? Why are kiwis (and people overseas) driving less? I think the following five factors are likely to lie behind the static/declining trends in per-capita vehicle travel that has been observed in New Zealand and overseas:
- Travel saturation – People already drive about as much as they can, given other constraints on their daily lives. I suspect that for many people’s their lives are “saturated” by vehicle travel – hence they are unwilling to travel further. This was not the case a few decades ago …
- Demographic shifts – The baby boomers are getting older and simply don’t need to travel so much, especially at peak times. Meanwhile, young people simply aren’t as attached to their cars as previous generations; smart phones are the new i-sexy item. Thus the need/desire for vehicle travel being undermined in both the younger and older age groups.
- Ongoing urbanisation – While we like to tell stories about our rural heritage, the reality is that NZ is a highly urbanized population, and increasingly so. One of the key reasons people are attracted to urban areas is because they can reach many more activities without having to travel as far, especially by car. My parents are in this category – not only are they semi-retired baby boomers, but they have also recently moved into the “city” from a lifestyle block on the urban periphery. They now consequently drive far, far less than they did previously. And they love it!
- Transport costs/policies - High fuel prices has slowly but surely driven small changes in travel and land use choices and increased demand for substitutes to vehicle travel, such as public transport and home delivery. In downtown Auckland and Wellington, the removal of minimum parking requirements has allowed the value of parking to rise to more reasonable levels, which has in turn driven considerable mode shift and allowed for more intensive development patterns (NB: Minimum parking requirements should be abolished). Meanwhile, the price of domestic airfares have reduced faster in real terms compared to car travel, which has subsequently chipped away at the demand for long distance vehicle travel.
- Technological change – the internet, which powers this very blog, is having a profound impact on travel demands. Booking flights and internet banking are just two examples of tasks that are now routinely undertaken from home, without needing to travel anywhere. More interesting, however, is the impact on global/domestic supply chains. Whereas previously you would drive to the store to buy a book that had been delivered by truck from a warehouse, the same book is now delivered straight from the warehouse to your door, potentially replacing several intermediary trips. Meanwhile, online journey planners and smart phones have helped to demystify public transport networks. And finally telecommuting is slowly coming of age: I work from home at least 1-2 days per week and travel to work outside of peak times when I do, mainly because technology now makes it easy to do so.
These five factors are, I believe, causing much of the stagnation and subsequent decline in per capita demand for vehicle travel (let me know if I have missed something that you think is important!). And the key point is that (aside from fuel prices) they are all the result of people’s choices. And for this reason you would have to assume that the people making these choices are doing so because it makes them better off. Yes that’s right – Kiwis are driving less and they are doing so because it makes them better off.
Unfortunately, the government seems to be cursing kiwis for making these choices, or at the very least are in denial about the fact that is occurring. To provide a somewhat banal example, to access data on traffic volumes through NZTA’s website you actually have to click on a green box titled “Traffic volumes are growing – see how much“, as illustrated below.
Errr …. no, they’re not growing actually. And in the entire time that NZTA has existed as an organisation they have actually been falling. But, honestly, what do facts matter?
More concerning, however, are comments made by the General Manager of MOT. When he was recently questioned by parliamentary select committee on recent trends in traffic volumes, he suggested that we should not base future forecasts on recent trends. Errr …. yes, you should actually. The GM is mistaken for several reasons. Firstly, these trends are not that recent; they have been evident for approximately 7 years. Standard traffic engineering analyses will base their calculations of future growth on the last 5-10 years of data. This means that very soon what the GM has dismissed as a “recent trend” will actually be “the only trend in town” (unless of course transport engineers sneakily start extending their time horizons back in time). Second, as mentioned previously the very same trends are evident in other countries overseas, i.e. they seem to be a global phenomenon, and in some countries they have been evident for some time.
So what gives? If kiwis are driving less and loving it, why is NZTA and the MoT so keen to dismiss their behaviour as an irritating aberration? Do they begrudge the fact that people are freely and willingly choosing to curtail their driving? I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I can’t help but suspect that the attitude MoT/NZTA is quite deliberate and has nothing to with either a) reality or b) what the public wants. It’s all about them.
Very soon static/declining traffic data will have catastrophic implications for the business cases of many of their projects. The Puhoi-Wellsford business case, for example, assumed annual traffic growth of 4% per year over several decades, before being “trimmed back” to only 1.5% thereafter. So if the MoT/NZTA actually acknowledged that traffic volumes were not actually growing that much, then it removes much of the justification for their pet projects. It’s really just pure, unadulterated bureaucratic self-interest (please, can someone who lives in Wellington track Bill English down and let him know that the MoT/NZTA are out of control and are wasting billions of dollars? As Minister of Finance he really needs to know).
Given that the views of MoT/NZTA are increasingly irrelevant then we will just have to think through the wider implications of the decline in per capita travel demands for ourselves. Here are just some impacts that spring to my mind (I’m sure there are others):
- Major road capacity expansions should be deferred: Overall vehicle volumes are not increasing – not unless the background population growth is sufficiently large to offset the decline in per capita demand for vehicle travel (approximately 1% per annum). I would suggest that all major highway capacity expansions are deferred for the foreseeable future.
- Declining fuel excise revenue – NZTA and the MOT will simply have to make do with less money. The revenue implications may even be amplified by a shift towards more fuel efficient cars, which pay less excise tax per kilometre. With less money coming into the NLTF it’s important that public transport becomes more efficient and reduces its dependence on operating subsidies. Otherwise we risk being in a situation where we have increase demand for public transport, but less revenue available to fund it.
- Flatter peak travel demands – the factors listed above are also likely to result in flatter peak travel demands. I expect that (semi-)retired baby boomers will simply elect to arrange their lives to avoid travelling during the peak period, and why wouldn’t you? Also, technological changes may continue to cause more people to work from home in the morning before heading into the office later on. Taken together, I would expect the peak/base ratio to reduce over time.
- Public transport networks need to focus on all-day travel – This is a natural extension of the previous comment. Our public transport services typically focus services on meeting demands during peak periods, rather than all-day travel. As travel patterns increasingly disperse (in a temporal sense) they will need to focus on all-day demand patterns.
None of this is to suggest that roads will suddenly be unnecessary or that targeted capacity expansions are not needed. Indeed in rapidly growing areas some capacity improvements may well be warranted. For the average New Zealander cars will still be “king”, and will continue to be so for the forseable future.
But the key point is this: Decisions on major new investment should be driven by the marginal user; it is their behaviour (rather than the average users) that should be the primary determinant of future investment. And it seems patently clear (based on the available evidence) that, at the margin, New Zealanders are choosing to reduce their demand for vehicle travel. To put it bluntly MoT/NZTA need to wake up from their self-induced coma so that they can revise their planned transport investments in light of this “new information” (which I guess in Government is defined as anything that happens within the last decade or so, or if you’re a conservative then anything within the the last millennium is considered “recent”) .
It’s quite simple really: Per capita demand for vehicle travel has been declining steadily for around seven years and for many people, like my parents, has left them better off. We’d be even better off, however, if the MoT/NZTA recognised that these changes were occurring and responded by revisiting their proposed transport investment mix. How about it?