A new report out of the USA supports a hypothesis that we’ve been talking about for quite a while on this blog: that traffic growth is stagnating across the world for a variety of reasons – and this has a compelling long term impact on our transport policies.
Some of the key findings from the report are outlined below:
From World War II until just a few years ago, the number of miles driven annually on America’s roads steadily increased. Then, at the turn of the century, something changed: Americans began driving less. By 2011, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year than in 2004.
The trend away from driving has been led by young people. From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people (16 to 34-year-olds) decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita—a drop of 23 percent. The trend away from steady growth in driving is likely to be long-lasting—even once the economy recovers.
Young people are driving less for a host of reasons—higher gas prices, new licensing laws, improvements in technology that support alternative transportation, and changes in Generation Y’s values and preferences—all factors that are likely to have an impact for years to come.
Federal and local governments have historically made massive investments in new highway capacity on the assumption that driving will continue to increase at a rapid and steady pace. The changing transportation preferences of young people—and Americans overall—throw those assumptions into doubt. The time has come for transportation policy to reflect the needs and desires of today’s Americans—not the worn-out conventional wisdom from days gone by.
Some of the statistics are pretty amazing: a 23% fall in the average vehicle miles travelled by young people in only eight years! Per capita travel peaked in 2004, well before the economic difficulties of the past few years:
- In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds as a whole took 24 percent more bike trips than they took in 2001, despite the age group actually shrinking in size by 2 percent.
- In 2009, 16 to 34-year-olds walked to destinations 16 percent more frequently than did 16 to 34-yearolds living in 2001.
- From 2001 to 2009, the number of passenger-miles traveled by 16 to 34-year-olds on public transit increased by 40 percent.
- According to Federal Highway Administration, from 2000 to 2010, the share of 14 to 34-year-olds without a driver’s license increased from 21 percent to 26 percent.
What the report helpfully does is then delve into some of the reasons behind the pretty dramatic changes: looking at things like higher fuel prices, the toughening up of licensing, improvements in technology, a changing culture and so on.
As always, the critical question is whether these statistics are just a ‘blip’ caused by the recession and slow economic recovery, or whether they are likely to indicate a long-term change. This is a really important question because it determines the extent to which we really do need to change our longer-term transport policies. Of course the only proper answer is to say that “we just don’t know for sure”, but there are some interesting suggestions in the report that the trends are here to stay:
The recession has played a role in reducing the miles driven in America, especially by young people. People who are unemployed or underemployed have difficulty affording cars, commute to work less frequently if at all, and have less disposable income to spend on traveling for vacation and other entertainment. The trend toward reduced driving, however, has occurred even among young people who are employed and/or are doing well financially.
- The average young person (age 16-34) with a job drove 10,700 miles in 2009, compared with 12,800 miles in 2001.
- From 2001 to 2009, young people (16 to 34-years-old) who lived in households with annual incomes of over $70,000 increased their use of public transit by 100 percent, biking by 122 percent, and walking by 37 percent.
For Auckland, what will be interesting is to see whether reductions in per capita driving are swamped by the massive population growth anticipated over the next 30 years or not. If not, then pretty much every new roading project planned for over the next 30 or so years may not actually be necessary.