One of the arguments commonly used against demands for more balance in transport investment between motorways and Transit or Active networks is that it would do nothing to change demand. Those with this position point to the current mode spilt in transport use and basically claim it is permanent, implying it is the result of perfect choice. In essence this is the government’s position, claiming that most people drive therefore we need more roads. This view contains two unexamined assumptions; one, that driving is always best served by adding more roads, and two, any change in driving demand, even if desired, is not possible to any meaningful degree. The people have chosen and even were there good alternatives, say a wonderfully efficient and appealing Transit network or safe and complete cycling system in Auckland, few would use them. Because driving is always, for everyone, in all situations, the ideal mode.
This is known as a Status Quo bias. And it is a position that you will also find held by many professionals in the transport planning and provision industry. It has a perfectly rational basis in experience for many as it is true that for about half a century leading up to about the middle of the last decade some key statistics such as growth in driving demand and electricity use were constantly rising across OCED countries. So much so that the main role of those in these industries pretty much consisted of working to predict the quantum of the rise and then trying to best provide for it. And for some years it was hard to keep up with the rise in demand, an exciting and busy ride for those at the heart of it no doubt. Many whole careers have been formed through this period and many at the top of their fields have little or no experience in any other condition.
That we have now had a good eight or so years since this state was the case in either driving volume rises or in electricity demand should enable us to expect a change in attitude both by professionals and politicians in these fields. However it is not clear that this is happening much at all, or at least if it is it’s uneven at best.
We can speculate why this might be; fear of change, inertia, innate conservatism of the fields, or vested interests [many a fine and well paid job in the auto-highway complex]…? But that isn’t what interests me here.
In this post it is my intention to show with a fascinating example in a related field why it is evident that we are indeed living in an age of disruption of these assumptions and discontinuity from these certainties from the previous century. And that it is really incumbent on any intelligent individual in these industries to ask a whole lot of more open-ended and interesting questions about how best to serve the future in their field.
Consider the fascinating example described here at the The Conversation site, an analysis of electricity demand this summer in Australia by Mike Sandiford from the University of Melbourne that shows the impact that the uptake of distributed solar power [PV] generation is having on the demand profile there. With a series of very clear charts Sandiford describes the extent of the disruption to the previously consistent growth pattern in electricity demand caused by individuals and small organisations installing PV on their buildings across Australia. Around 2 gigawatts in the last few years have been added in this way and here’s the result:
Note it is well worth looking at the original site for fuller information on this data:
For me the especially interesting and relevant charts are the ones below. Because in summer in a hot country electricity demand peaks in the afternoon [particularly because of the huge jump in aircon use] just when PV generation also is most productive. So this uptake in PV has the brilliant effect of smoothing the peak. In other words taking the pressure off the demand at exactly the best time, saving the nation a fortune in investment in capacity that is unneeded most of the time anyway. Here’s the metaphor: the baseload generators in Australia are just like our motorways; they easily supply heaps of capacity outside of the peaks, but it would be wasteful and inefficient to build extra capacity for the period of highest demand only to have them idle for the rest of the day. Especially when an alternative is easily within reach.
Average summer demand profile by time of day for South Australia. Left panel shows absolute demand for the last four summers. Right panel shows the percentage change relative to summer 2010. Data from AEMO, charts by Mike Sandiford.
This is exactly the way that investment now in Transit systems in Auckland is likely to be more cost effective and efficient than trying to build out the vastly dominant motorways systems with sufficient capacity for the peak of the peaks. There certainly is plenty of evidence that alternatives to driving can and will if provided smooth demand at the peaks in a way analogous to the way PV has smoothed the demand peaks in the Australian electricity market. We know from experience this century that improvement in Transit service is rewarded with big lifts in uptake. Two examples: Train use rising exponentially since the opening of Britomart [despite the frequent shutdowns for works and breakdowns by tatty old trains and the incomplete and disjointed network] correlating to a drop in the number of cars entering the city centre in the morning peak. And the result of the only new Transit Right Of Way for decades, the Northern Busway, having a hugely positive impact on the efficient performance of the motorway over the Harbour Bridge by substantially affecting demand [despite being less than half complete].
There are two separate but related points here:
1. The expectations of continual rises in driving demand are far from certain, especially as they have not been observed for quite some time [discontinuity] and are subject to the rise of alternatives [disruption].
2. We can choose to benefit from the advantages to society from these changes by investing and encouraging them.
Auckland already has an impressively extensive and well constructed motorway system that will offer a substantially complete network once current works are finished and that it is likely that the best way to get the highest value for money out of it and to ensure its continued efficient use is to invest away from it. Looking at the boxes below shows that serious consideration should be given to making the bulk of our next investments in transport from the right hand one. Especially as we certainly need to find the best and most effective ways to best utilise the sunk costs in existing investments. Want to keep the current dominant system functioning then invest in the complimentary alternatives to smooth that peak demand down to a manageable level.
At first look the analogy between Transit and PV uptake may seem imperfect because we cannot as individuals choose to have a better Transit system, but we can of course choose to use Transit if it is available at a good price, which really is all that has happened to the electricity market in Australia. The technology of PV is now available at a quality and a price that makes it an obvious choice by enough people to materially disrupt the need for many billions of dollars worth of new generation investment by society. And while this is upsetting the established power industry it is a great result for the financial burden on ordinary Australians, including those who have not bought PV. Exactly the same choice in the transport sector could be ours if we invest in it. And these advantages would accrue especially to those who never catch a bus or a train or ride a bike. Advantages in lower costs and a freer existing road system.
We live in an age of disruptions and discontinuities.
We need to be open to new opportunities and put less energy into fighting to try to keep things as they are: