There have been quite a number of posts on this blog over the last few months which discuss our changing travel patterns – and in particular the drop off in traffic growth that has occurred in the past few years. The fact that traffic growth has slowed or stopped is pretty incontrovertible – you just need to look at NZTA’s state highway traffic data to have that confirmed:
What’s perhaps more interesting is to ponder the “why” and also the question about whether this is just a “blip” or whether it’s more of a long term shift – due to cultural/technological/demographic changes.
A recent article in the Economist explores this question in quite a bit bit detail – which makes for a good read.
But in the rich world the car’s previously inexorable rise is stalling. A growing body of academics cite the possibility that both car ownership and vehicle-kilometres driven may be reaching saturation in developed countries—or even be on the wane, a notion known as “peak car”.
Recession and high fuel prices have markedly cut distances driven in many countries since 2008, including America, Britain, France and Sweden. But more profound and longer-run changes underlie recent trends. Most forecasts still predict that when the recovery comes, people will drive as much and in the same way as they ever have. But that may not be true.
As a general trend, car ownership and kilometres travelled have been increasing throughout the rich world since the 1950s. Short-term factors like the 1970s oil-price shock caused temporary dips, but vehicle use soon recovered.
The current fall in car use has doubtless been exacerbated by recession. But it seems to have started before the crisis. A March 2012 study for the Australian government—which has been at the forefront of international efforts to tease out peak-car issues—suggested that 20 countries in the rich world show a “saturating trend” to vehicle-kilometres travelled. After decades when each individual was on average travelling farther every year, growth per person has slowed distinctly, and in many cases stopped altogether.
The fact that a slowdown in traffic growth started happening before the recession was something Stu touched on in this previous post, and seems to be confirmed by research cited in the Economist article, which also notes lower rates of young people getting driver’s licenses compared to 1983:
Similar trends come through when you look at New Zealand, although we’re not quite as pronounced as European countries and Japan:
There are different measures of saturation: total distance driven, distance per driver and total trips made. The statistics are striking on each of these counts even in America, still the most car-mad country in the world. There, total vehicle-kilometres travelled began to plateau in 2004 and fall from 2007; measured per person, growth flatlined sooner, after 2000, and dropped after 2004 before recovering somewhat (see chart). The number of trips has fallen, mostly because of a decline in commuting and shopping (of the non-virtual variety).
Britain, another nation that measures such things obsessively, has a similar arc. Kilometres travelled per person were stable or falling through most of the 2000s. Total traffic has not increased for a decade, despite a growing population. For the past 15 years Britons have been making fewer journeys; they now go out in cars only slightly more often than in the 1970s. Pre-recession declines in per-person travel were also recorded in France, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium.
The article offers quite a number of suggestions why this trend could be happening and how it relates to causes far beyond just the recession. These include:
- The cost of fuel
- An ageing population
- Growth in inner urban areas with more transport alternatives
- Better public transport and the rise of car sharing schemes
- The rise of the internet
- Chronic congestion putting people off driving
While the “why” is interesting and clearly deserves a lot of analysis and attention, I think the most compelling element to this discussion are the implications of a future where traffic growth simply doesn’t happen. This pretty much throws the book out in terms of transport planning, which is done on the basis of assuming that traffic will continue to grow inexorably. It raises interesting questions around whether we need many new roads at all, questions around whether public transport use will also ‘peak’ or whether less people driving means more people on public transport, questions around the extent to which a decline/stagnation in per capita distances travelled will be swamped by population growth or not. A lot of questions.
Needless to say, if traffic doesn’t grow to the extent anticipated pretty much the whole world changes in terms of our transport future – what we need to build but more particularly what we don’t need to build. With so many billions of dollars at stake I sure hope someone’s thinking about this issue.