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The elephant in the room: a familiar tale of traffic decline

While the UK trends have been around a bit longer than ours, this could very easily be a good description of the current disjoint between reality and the government’s transport policies in New Zealand:

Build on falling traffic trend – not on the countryside

10 November: Quarterly traffic figures are out, showing falling vehicle numbers and undermining the case for new roads.

The statistical releases from the DfT cover motorways and main roads in England, Wales and Scotland, and all show a falling trend in vehicle traffic volumes, alongside rising speeds. Across all types of vehicles and roads, motor traffic volumes were 0.5 per cent lower in the third quarter of 2011 than in the third quarter of 2010, continuing a long-term trend.

The releases also shed light on traffic speeds and congestion. For local authority A roads in England in particular, the data is interesting. It shows absolutely no increase in congestion on these roads since 2006 – in fact the overall change observed is that traffic on A roads is now moving 1.8 per cent faster than it was during 2006/7 (25.1 vs 24.6 mph).

This shows up a major flaw in the analysis on which new road plans are based, with predictions of small vehicle time savings – added up over decades – making up the majority of measured ‘benefits’ of building a bypass. These time savings are not calculated in comparison to the current situation, but against a projected level of congestion that is modelled on an assumption of continued traffic growth. Growth that may never actually happen.

And it would be a mistake to assume that reduced traffic is simply a product of the recession, and that economic recovery will automatically bring cars flooding back onto our A roads.

Falling traffic is a positive trend that started well before the financial crisis in 2008. At least partly, it represents a growing desire – particularly among younger people in towns and cities – to live without car ownership and make use of high quality alternatives.

The choices that national and local governments make over the next few years will have a lot of influence on what happens to traffic, offering people more choice or locking them into car dependency.

As Phil Goodwin and other academics have pointed out, London’s reliance on the car has been declining from a peak way back in 1993, and the city saw car ownership and mode share fall sharply throughout the long financial boom of the 2000s, while public transport services improved. So prosperity and traffic growth are not as intertwined as some local authorities bidding for DfT funding for their bypasses would like to believe, and these councils are making a grave mistake by assuming new roads will bring real financial benefits to their local areas.

If councils like Norfolk, Devon, East Sussex and Bristol are keen to spend money improving transport, they should be looking instead at ways to make the most of people’s desire for alternatives to the car in their towns and cities with smarter travel and land-use planning; building on the trend for less traffic, rather than building new roads and developments out in the countryside.

I’ve put the key paragraph in bold. Pretty much all our planned roading projects are justified on the basis of solving huge future congestion problems caused by assumed massive future traffic growth. If those growth predictions are wildly inaccurate and if there’s not a huge problem now (like is the case for many of the RoNS projects) then we’re basically spending a huge amount of money to solve a problem which doesn’t, and won’t, exist.

Interestingly it seems as though UK traffic growth predictors suffer from a bizarre problem of simply ignoring reality where it disagrees with their modelling outputs – check out this comparison of predicted traffic volumes versus real traffic volumes:

Seven wildly inaccurate predictions later and they still haven’t learned their lesson?

Meanwhile, in the USA traffic volumes are back to 1995 levels:

And in New Zealand state highway volumes have basically gone nowhere in four years (the pink line is all traffic):

I wonder how long it’ll take for the transport profession to come to the realisation that traffic just isn’t growing anymore. I guess as agencies like NZTA have a massive vested interest in completing ignoring these trends, it might be quite some time yet.  Falling traffic volumes are the absolutely giant “elephant in the room” when it comes to transport policymaking because as soon as we accept what’s finally happening, everything changes.

36 comments to The elephant in the room: a familiar tale of traffic decline

  • I do wonder what the impact of cheap airfares has on inter-regional travel. Road trips between Auckland and Wellington are becoming an increasing rarity, for instance. Are domestic passenger kilometres by air tracked anywhere?

    • I don’t know of too many people who drive between Auckland and Wellington anymore. I think flying has most of the point to pint market. For one or two people flying would be cheaper.
      Still plenty of trucks on the road, a sign of our slow railway system and transport policies favoring road!

    • JohnP

      There aren’t really statistics on domestic air travel which are publicly available, but it certainly has grown strongly over the last couple of decades. According to Auckland Airport’s latest annual report, they had 6.23 million domestic passengers in the June 2012 financial year, and 14 million passengers in total. In 1997, they had 8 million passengers in total – they didn’t split out international and domestic, but the point is that growth has been strong. There have been increases for most other airports as well.

  • Dave

    How much of this is due to factors such as working from home for example, which is now quite common in the UK.

    • TimR

      Anecdotally, talking to family ‘back there’ it’s got a lot to do with the price of fuel. Anyone who can access an alternative does so.

      The weird converse is that car ownership was still growing in the UK, but with less VKT. Shows we can’t ditch the status symbol of the car without some keep social rewiring…

  • Ha – that top image is denial represented in graph form.

  • You can expect per-capita traffic volumes to fall in Auckland as more people are pumped in while the city is not allowed to geographically expand (properly), because what you end up with is ever more severe congestion making it harder and more expensive for people to drive.

    Surface level data doesn’t tell us too much without the WHY underneath it. It’s the dynamics that drive the trends, not the tends themselves, that give us the real (complete) story.

    • Ash

      That Auckland is not allowed to geographically expand ‘properly’ seems a bit of a loaded assertion. Apparently, many people would rather not have Auckland grow any bigger. It’s up to those who are in favour of sprawl to win the political debate and elect pro-sprawler politicians.

      The ‘Green Sprawl Why Not?’ article your username links to seems to attack a strawman conception of new urbanism, and rests on so many unfounded assumptions re developers moderating themselves as well as the ecological behaviour of those who would inhabit the new sprawl, and furthermore would undermine all of the benefits of intensity. In short, if everybody follows this conception of sprawl and is a model ecological citizen then sprawl probably won’t be too bad, err maybe. People are not “being forced out of nature”, but are flocking to cities because opportunities there are greater. It remains to be seen whether there would be so much in the way of opportunities in a spreading web of small villages with perhaps a dairy and a petrol station each. And “force us all into high-density apartments” ???? Please! What exactly do you think is going to happen to Auckland’s vast stock of suburban standalone homes?

      In the USA walkable communities are very much in demand, and those on the city fringes with long commutes were some of the worst affected by foreclosures. There is a similar phenomenon taking place in Melbourne.

    • Where exactly is this “even more severe” congestion Andrew? Auckland’s congestion is dropping, it’s currently lower than the 2004 levels despite eight years of solid growth. So we have strong population growth but simultaneously less driving and less congestion. Harder to drive? Not after all the motorway extensions and widenings that have opened across the last decade. If anything it is much easier to drive, yet increasingly people are choosing not to. Like wise with “not being allowed to geographically expand”, Auckland has geographically expanded, yet the fringe of the city is the only place we have seen unsold properties and dropping prices, unlike the inner suburbs. It must be quiet inconvenient when Aucklanders head off and don’t do what you want them to. I think your ideology is clouding your judgement!

      • bbc

        Yes it definitely appears to be that people want to live out in the sticks….thankfully Key is on the job and will be opening up lots of nice greenfield sites near Pukekohe to take the pressure off Ponsonby and Parnell.

        “The Herald asked PropertyIQ for a list of the country’s top 20 areas. It valued every house in each suburb based on recent sales of nearby comparable properties to find an average, although there are many properties that would fall below the figure.

        They were all in Auckland – 13 had an average value of $1 million or more and figures are now higher than ever.

        Three of the 13 areas were on the North Shore – Stanley Bay, Takapuna and Devonport – while the rest were in Auckland city, including Parnell, Epsom, Remuera, Ponsonby, Westmere and Mission Bay.

        The two newest suburbs to join the $1 million club were Freemans Bay, with an average value of $1,008,389, and Mt Eden at $1,001,667.”

    • Peter M

      But people hate cities Nick. That’s why the proportion of people living in cities is declining all around the world..

      Uhhh…..

    • Liz

      I drove (most of the way) to work for the first time in 7 years today, and left home an hour earlier than usual to make sure I didn’t hit any traffic. Although the drive was easy at that time, with only one minimal point of congestion, I’d still have rather been in a bus or on a train so that I could do something useful on the way. And I caught the bus for the last bit into town anyway, because I didn’t want to navigate the city centre trying to find parking.

      I live in a very suburban area, with wide streets, big green lawn, etc. I’d love to live closer in, where I could walk or cycle to my local shops or to work. And where the local shops weren’t a shopping mall. I miss a lot of events in town at the weekends because I don’t want to drive into the CBD. Unfortunately the buses aren’t as regular at the wknd so it’s difficult to plan around.

      My ideal home would be a nice compact terraced house, in a compact and walkable suburb that’s near to local shops and near a transport route. I’d also love to be able to walk/catch PT to friends’ houses – something that’ll be difficult if they all live out on the edge of town. I live in a city, not out in the country, and in my mind a city should be a place where you don’t have to drive to do everyday things (general shopping, commuting, visiting friends, etc).

      I only put up with the suburbs because I have to, not because I want to. Please start to understand that the people who want a compact city are very real and very annoyed with arguments such as yours.

  • John Smith

    How long will it take the traffic engineers to accept that ‘predict and provide’ based on the trends of the past is no longer a safe way to plan long lived multi-billion dollar infrastructure?

    My guess is: about 20 years. That is, about the time that it will take a generation that has grown up with the new reality to reach positions of influence.

    As they say (I first read this in referring to scientists, but you can replace the words in square brackets with whatever you like): ‘The dominant paradigm in [science] doesn’t change because [scientists] change their minds. It change because old [scientists] die and younger ones think differently.’

    • Bbc

      As a scientist myself I have witnessed multiple paradigm shifts in my short career to date that stem from scientists reevaluating what they think based on new research not because the people espousing the previous model died. In fact it’s institutions like churches and the government that refuse to accept what scientists have long accepted as fact and moved on.

      • John Smith

        Apologies, I wasn’t really trying to knock scientists. I was thinking of people like Galileo and Semmelweis. No doubt things move faster nowadays.

  • Bob

    One of the explanations could be that bicycles are getting easier to ride a lot faster. My new bike can cover the ground with half the exertion of the old one. And now you can get motorised cycles, vespas and all sorts cheap transport alternatives. A lot of families simply do not need 2 cars any more.

  • Martin

    As someone who lives in wales and works in London there are a few holes here not picked up on. The cost of car ownership and gridlock in London is so bad that PT is a decent choice. Rest of the UK this is not the case and my place in Cardiff has three cars and three tenents.

    Note that it starts to look at England only. Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland are different cases as PT is not as good and is far more expensive then the Greater London Area.
    Also lets not forget that the ownership costs of cars in the UK os far greater then NZ (my car insurance has gone through the roof although I’ve only a small car and never had an accident in the UK or NZ.

    • Martin all true, but the same changes in ownership and use [declining] are observable not only in the UK and NZ, but also the US and across the OCED. Clearly rising cost is a big factor but there also seems to be a culture shift away from car use regardless of cost. Other probable factors include the rise of communication technology, the ageing of the ‘driving-est’ generation there has ever been [baby boomers], and the environmental views of younger generations.

      On baby boomers [b1946-64] we drove more than our parents and still we drive more than our children, we are the peak driving generation, and now that the oldest boomers are in their 60s are begining to slow down our endless appetite for driving.

      Interesting. See here for example: http://www.stuff.co.nz/motoring/7928406/Ageing-drivers-present-new-challenge

      Much of the hand-wringing on this has come from car companies desperate to keep their best ever market going till they die. While a number will keep driving and living in the ‘burbs in big houses, but of course not commuting everyday in their car. But also a big number are/will downsize the house as it is the bulk of their savings, some to apartments, and are/will shedding the car or just finding less need for it too.

    • Max

      Martin, your comment is well sensible for out in the sticks. Whether that’s in the downs of merry old England, or for somebody living in Maramarua. But most of Auckland’s population lives in urban areas, or suburban areas which are a bit in denial about the “urban” part. So these trends that apply to a WHOLE of a country, are even more concentrated in the cities. So we shouldn’t see this as “holes” – we should realise that thise “holes” actually strengthen the case for driving reduction in cities, and the transport paradigm change we need.

  • KBilly

    The elephant in the room here is called ‘the global financial crisis’. Good try.

    • Check the dates: the downturn in driving precedes the the GFC. There seems to be something else at work here as well. Certainly it aligns well with petrol price rises, as it does in other OECD countries.

      Anyway in the absence of rapid population growth why wouldn’t there be a point at which VKT would stabilise? It seems unlikely that every year for ever we will all drive more that the year before, so why not now?

  • KBilly

    I checked the NZ graph and it matches perfectly.

  • KBilly

    It’s right up there at the top.

  • KBilly

    The NZ graph doesn’t even start at 1990, so not sure what you’re looking at.

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