The authors of a recent academic study are concluding that due to demographic factors and saturation car ownership, we may have already passed peak travel in most industrialized countries:
The work was based on what seems to be an obvious contradiction: many economic and energy models assume that the rapid expansion of transportation will continue unabated for something approaching the indefinite future. But, realistically, transit faces some real limits. Some countries already have more cars than licensed drivers (like NZ – Ed), many people aren’t willing to spend much more of their days in transit, and the congestion and parking problems faced by urban populations can put a hard limit on automobile use. Population growth could drive a continued expansion, but that’s also slowing in many industrialized countries, and their aging populations are expected to drive less.
So, the authors argue that saturation of a populations’ ability and desire to travel may be closer than these models assume. And, based on recent data, they argue that it may be possible that we’re already there.
The interesting part of the study is that these trends became apparent from 2003, well before the impact of the 2007/08 oil shock – although the high price of fuel undoubtedly contributed to the downward trend in car travel in later years. The authors see indications that air travel is continuing to rise, but it looks like the assumption that people will continue to drive further and more frequently is not standing up to real-world experience.
The paper itself focuses on the CO2 implications of these transport trends, but the road-building implications are equally interesting. Many roading projects have an underlying assumption that traffic volumes will rise by around 3% per annum, yet it appears that these growth rates are not being exhibited at the moment, and are even less likely to materialise in the future.
It’s an old adage that generals are always planning to win the previous war, rather than the next one. Transport Ministers and their planners in New Zealand seem to be suffering from a similar myopia, building solutions to problems that have may already peaked. Given the scale of the investments needed for either massive roading projects or an integrated public transport network, it would be a shame if this desire to solve the problems of the past precluded the investments necessary to construct the future.