In a comment on yesterday’s post about changing attitudes towards transport among young people, Stu Donovan pointed towards a very interesting piece of research undertaken by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute on changing transport trends in a number of different countries around the world. The argument of the paper is quite simple – and very much linked with what I’ve been pointing out has been happening in New Zealand recently – that the decades long trend of more and more automobile use seems to be tapering off and even declining in a number of developed world countries.

Here’s the paper’s abstract:

I’m not going to run through every detail of the paper, because it’s pretty lengthy, but rather pick out a number of the graphs and tables that I think are interesting.

Vehicle ownership rates seem to have hit a peak in the USA over the past decade, although the very high levels of car ownership seem to indicate that’s probably the result of market saturation: Perhaps a bit more interesting than car ownership rates is the fact that distance travelled per person has also tapered off over the last seven years compared to the rapid growth in earlier decades: It’s worth remembering that these numbers are per capita, so between 2000 and 2007 we would have still seen increases in total VMT, due to population growth. One does wonder why the last 10 years has varied so much from what happened in the 1990s though – perhaps the USA experienced more economic growth in the 1990s? Perhaps the very low oil prices of the 1990s, and the higher oil prices in recent years, have had an impact? Perhaps there are changing land-use patterns with a ‘re-centralisation’ of many cities.

The next graph doesn’t necessarily answer the questions above, but does show something quite interesting: that most of the slowdown in per capita VMT between 2000 and 2007 probably occurred in the last two years of that period, and that this trend has continued (and intensified) since 2007: There are some obvious similarities between the graph above, and what’s happened in New Zealand over the past few years – shown in the graph below: While one reason for the slowdown over the past few years might well be the economic situation, it’s interesting to see that in both NZ and the USA the large recession which occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s doesn’t seem to have had the same impact on transport trends as what we’ve seen in the past few years.

The paper quotes Lester Brown, who suggests a potential social reason behind some of these changes:

There were probably quite a lot of teenagers in the late 1970s, due the baby boom of the post-World War II years, but even on a per capita basis the proportion of teenage drivers with licenses has declined in the USA in more recent times: Looking at the last 10 years, for most of these years the increase in public transport has been larger than that for vehicle use. The gap was particularly massive in 2008, when oil prices spiked: Of course there’s still some uncertainty over the question of whether what’s happened in the past few years is the exception to the long-running trend of increasing automobile use, or whether we really are at the cusp of a fundamental shift in transport trends. The more general ‘cultural shift’ of young people away from cars and towards other technologies is perhaps the most difficult thing to measure, but potentially very significant. I tend to think that rising oil prices have also had a fundamental impact on transport trends in the past few years, and it seems likely this will continue into the future too.

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  1. the car ownership rate in Japan–especially among the urban young–has really dropped off in the last decade. i would have to check out the driver’s license ratio for 18-25 year olds, but i suspect it has fallen too. spending priorities have changed.

    1. My colleague Jarrett Walker once described Auckland as “the focus of an agrarian nation’s disdain for urban life.”

  2. It may also be that the cities are now more compact, and PT better than in decades. The internet and cellphones are surely having an impact.

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