We have long criticised the Ministry of Transport as being horribly outdated in their thinking on transport matters. It’s always difficult to know the extent to which the Ministry is just reflecting the government’s political direction or whether they truly believe what they’re saying, but in more recent times there have been a few signs that the Ministry might be getting its act together. For example, their Briefing to the Incoming Minister highlighted some important changing transport trends, particularly when looking at future funding issues.
It seems like some of the more interesting advice in the “BIM” might have come out of the Ministry’s “Strategic Policy Programme“, which has recently published information on projects in three key areas:
I’ll look to get to all these documents in a few posts over the coming days and weeks, but for now focus on the “Future Demand” work, which seems to have highlighted the uncertainty around the future of transport that comes through in the BIM more strongly than it has before. The summary highlights the key issue:
The road network is worth more than $60 billion and costs more than $1 billion a year to maintain. We are planning to invest $10 billion over the next ten years to change the shape of the network to improve its quality and capacity.
This would be relatively straightforward if we knew how demand would change. The challenge we face, however, is there have recently been changes to the patterns of demand for personal travel.
From 1980 to 2004 we saw annual increase in demand in the order of three percent per year. This highlighted the importance of tackling congestion and improving safety and gave us assurance revenue would grow to cover the costs of a growing network. From 2005 to 2013 total demand only grew by 0.25 percent per year.
We now face an uncertain future. We cannot be certain demand will return to pre-2005 levels of growth nor can we be certain it will remain flat. This means we can no longer rely on traditional forecasting models alone to help us to decide how to invest.
Importantly, the Ministry acknowledges a systematic over-projection of future demand has occurred in recent years:
As there are so many factors that may affect future transport demand, plus so much uncertainty around the short-term and long-term causes of these changes, the Ministry’s project developed four different scenarios for the future based around two-axis: whether the relative cost of energy would increase or decrease and whether technological change would lead to a preference for virtual or physical accessibility.
Perhaps what is most interesting in the scenarios is the modelling that was done on future total vehicle kilometres travelled between 2014 and 2042 and that they declined in three of the four scenarios. This is not a per capita decline, but an absolute decline. It is only the “traveller’s paradise” scenario which saw VKT increase over this time period.
The study draws some interesting conclusions:
When we think about creating a thriving New Zealand we should recognise we are trying to improve access not just mobility. There are three different ways we can achieve this: with good transport systems; with good spatial planning; or by improving digital access. We need to integrate our thinking across these three areas to achieve the optimal outcome.
To reduce the uncertainty we face we should seek to better understand the factors affecting the changing patterns of demand and refresh our demand models accordingly. We should look both at social trends and also speed in development, take-up and impact of new technologies.
To ensure resilience of the access system we develop for New Zealand we should seek to build in flexibility where we can. This will allow us to respond more quickly to changing patterns of demand and reduce the likelihood that we will make investments which will become unnecessary.
We need to recognise that the investment decisions we make will shape patterns of demand and not just respond to them. We should move away from the approach of seeking to simply predict future demand and then provide for it. We should instead debate the sort of access we want and decide how to invest to support the future.
That last sentence is exactly what I’ve long thought, our travel choices are a reflection of the system that we’ve invested in. It’s no surprise that so many rely on cars for transport options when for so long that’s the only thing we invested in improving while at the same time we allowing all alternatives to get substantially less attractive and useful. The changing trends that we’ve been seeing over the last decade are in part a response to the fact we’ve slowly started to improve some of those alternatives.
There’s a huge amount of additional background information on the project website, which is worth a read through as it summarises a lot of discussion about the issue of “peak car”.
While it’s great to see the Ministry doing this work, the real test will be to see whether this affects any policy changes. The draft Government Policy Statement seemed to write off the recent flattening of VKT as a “blip”, whereas this future-focused work suggests that, under the majority of scenarios, it’s here to stay and VKT could even start declining.