… long time sprawl and car advocates are beginning to realise that private vehicle use is dropping – even if their reasoning behind the trends and their analysis of the implications is somewhat strange.

But it is interesting to see a post on New Geography, using Auckland as the case study city, detailing the falling use of private vehicles to travel around. Here’s the up front statement by Phil McDermott – author of the blog post on New Geography:

The prospect of falling car use now needs to be firmly factored into planning for western cities.

That may come as a bit of a surprise in light of the preoccupation with city plans that aim to get people out of their cars, but it is already happening. And it is highly likely to continue regardless of whether or not we promote urban consolidation and expensive transit systems.

I don’t really want to turn this into a post that simply picks apart everything stated by Mr McDermott, but there’s some interesting logic jumps in the statement above. Perhaps, one might equally assume, the promotion of urban consolidation and “expensive” (like building new motorways is cheap) transit systems over the past few years might have something to do with the trends we’re now seeing.

But anyway, let’s set that aside for now and look at the numbers – which come from a fairly detailed analysis of the New Zealand Travel Survey, which is published by the Ministry of Transport every two years. The results for Auckland show that travel peaked in 2007 and has declined by a not insignificant 15% over the period of the survey. Public transport use declined in the early part of the survey period but has increased by around 13% between 2007 and 2011:nzts-2003-2011A more detailed look at car travel reveals some really interesting information:car-use-information
What this shows is that throughout the overall 2003-2011 period the greatest decline for all types of car trips was trip length. In other words, people took shorter trips – possible reasons for this include fewer domestic holidays compared to international holidays or more people choosing to fly than drive, as well as perhaps a renewed interest in inner suburban living or ensuring that you live closer to your work. The other interesting thing to note is that passenger trips declined at a much faster rate than driver trips – perhaps supporting the idea that it’s the long distance holiday trips which have gone down the most.

However, since 2007 the numbers have been a more even decline between kilometres and trip legs and the time spent travelling. This seems to suggest that while the early declines were mainly just the elimination of very long trips, since 2007 we have seen people simply take fewer trips. It’s difficult to pick out reasons for this but perhaps this is more of the cultural shift among young people coming through – people who simply don’t want to have to drive in order to get around. I think it’s no coincidence that the years of fewer trips coincide with the years where public transport patronage went up the most.

The New Geography post has a reasonably good discussion of further reasons behind these trends, such as an ageing population, higher fuel prices and the growing role of public transport (noted somewhat grudgingly I feel). There’s also a slightly odd assumption that decentralisation might have led to shorter trips – which seems counter-intuitive to the very concept of decentralisation which is moving things further apart. Furthermore, in the latter part of last decade employment actually grew faster in the city centre than anywhere else in Auckland, while most residential growth was also through intensification rather than greenfield development. This is what’s said in the City Centre Future Access Study supporting documentation about employment growth:citycentre-employment-numbersAnother factor in the reduced traffic volumes is quite a marked change in the trends of car ownership from previous growth rates:

car-ownershipMr McDermott makes a number of conclusions out of this information – some of which seem to make sense and others that are a bit more questionable:

There is evidence accumulating to suggest that significant changes are taking place at the margin of transport demand and car dependence. If this is a sign of things to come it raises questions about long-term road expenditure, about dire predictions of road congestion, and about the benefits of adopting expensive land use and transport measures designed to force people out of their cars.

Already, within a more constrained economy, people seem to be making their own decisions to reduce car dependence.

In terms of city planning, it suggests that decentralisation may be more sustainable than the compact city protagonists make out. In this respect, is interesting that motorway traffic counts show that significant reductions in inner city vehicle flows are offset by gains (albeit much smaller) in outer parts of the city – even as measured distance travelled falls.

And Auckland definitely needs to rethink assumptions behind spending plans for major road and rail infrastructure – and confront the risks and costs of getting them wrong.

I’m not quite sure I understand the logic of the “we don’t need to enable people to get around via alternatives to the car and to live in the inner suburbs they seem to want to live in” argument that is being made. I look at this information and what immediately comes to mind is “stop all roading projects which aren’t already under construction and do a major rethink of the way future transport demand is generated”. Public transport patronage is growing, road use is falling – effectively the people are voting with their feet for what they want future transport policy to be focused on. I do agree with Mr McDermott that the congestion assumptions behind the results of the City Centre Future Access Study are probably a load of rubbish, but the more logical alternative (that instead of driving all those people will be on the bus or train) actually just makes the case for the project even stronger.

But anyway, I look forward to some serious critiquing of projects like Puhoi-Wellsford and an Additional Harbour Crossing from the good folk at New Geography.

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  1. “most residential growth was also through intensification” – I’m still skeptical about this. As I commented in Matt’s post, you’ve got to distinguish ‘additional’ houses in the existing urban area from ‘replacement’ houses. There needs to be better data on this. The best way to go may be census data.

    1. There is no need to go to old census data, the council has exact records on new housing units, where and when they were built. This is where Matt’s data ultimately comes from.

      1. That may be the case, but normally building consents data is simply split into “new” dwellings or “altered” dwellings, i.e. extensions to existing. But if I buy a property in Auckland, demolish the old 1930s-era house that was there and build a replacement one, that’s shown as a “new” dwelling, even though I haven’t increased the number of dwellings in Auckland.

        Looking at the SNZ Infoshare stats for the Auckland, they’re a bit higher than the stats Matt showed in his post. So maybe “replacement” houses have indeed been removed from the picture. But if so, I think this should be stated more clearly in the original blog post. Matt, could you please clarify whether that is the case?

  2. As a start towards answering my own question: Stats New Zealand estimate that the old Auckland City had a population of 362,000 in June 1996, which had risen to 462,200 by 2012. An increase of 100,000 people in that area, the most developed part of Auckland. This could be 40,000 or so additional households, given that there’s also a trend towards smaller household sizes.

    This analysis really needs to be done at the area unit level, though.

  3. Problem we have here is that the report author is juxtaposing two issues as independent to each when they are related and more than that, probably causative.

    1. Vehicle usage, ownership and vehicle miles driven is down quite a lot since 2007
    2. Investment in road-using PT alternatives is increasing

    One main reason for less traffic is that people are (a) living nearer to their work if they can (b) using PT more for more things as a direct result of congestion, vehicle running costs and somewhat improved options for intensive housing that suits their needs.

    To draw an analogy with medicine:

    To say “we don’t need more investments in PT or Rail any more as its seemingly fixing itself is like a Doctor saying “look the patient is getting better – so stop the penicillin treatment”
    – when its the very same penicillin thats making them well!

    You can’t assume that the less driving angle is “fixing” the congestion problem, any more than a mild dose of penicillin will cure a serious case of VD.

    All thats doing is delaying the inevitable, sooner or later the infection/congestion will return – and it will be much harder to treat the next time.

    So you either agree that the (PT) dose should be increased to really ensure the problem is cured once and forall, or you run the risk of a partial cure, which the resultant drug-resistant condition which wil ltake much longer and be way more expensive to treat.

    I know which option I’d take,to cure the patien of “Vehicle Disease”…

    1. Did you forget to read the bit where the trend started before 2008 and the GFC bit. This is not just motivated by financial motives. In the States, research has been done to show that even high earning individuals are moving away from driving. You can easily find that data pn the internet if you take some time to research. Also, less young people are applying for driver licenses.

      This is a trend and almost noone is denying it is a reality.

  4. The trend began pre Recession in NZ.

    Plus the primary benefit of this recession has been keeping the price of Oil at the pumps down.

    1. The thing that has kept the pump price down here is the over-valued NZD. The price of crude has doubled twice over the last decade and maintained its high despite OECD contraction and tight (shale) oil uptick in US (USD 25 to 115+) The world’s biggest and most wasteful consumer is now using 10% less than 5 years ago. And no this not because of more efficient cars but because of less driving (Jevons paradox).

      But you’re still right as it is hard to imagine the supply crunch we’ed be suffering if it were not for this ‘demand destruction’.

      But the real point is not that the recession has caused a drop in driving but that the end of cheap oil caused the recession… The entire spatial order (sprawl) and movement technology (auto dependency) of the postwar world is built on cheap energy inputs. As is the belief in limitless growth that can be borrowed against.

      This condition is now over.

  5. Based on this very article the trend started in 2007, pretty much the exact same time as the recession. Regarding oil prices, I think you will find if people are unemployed they won’t really care if petrol us 1% cheaper.

    1. From the article:

      “What this shows is that throughout the overall 2003-2011 period the greatest decline for all types of car trips was trip length. In other words, people took shorter trips…”

      Although based on this very article, the trend did become more more pronounced around 2007, pretty much the exact same time as the recession.

      “However, since 2007 the numbers have been a more even decline between kilometres and trip legs and the time spent travelling.”

      1. Yes so what we have seen is a general reduction in trips in general. There are swarms of reasons that have played a part to this quite possibly the least of which being a reduction in new housing.

        1. But hang-on, correction, there has been a reduction in the RATE of new builds but a still a rise in the total number, the quantum; of dwellings, households, and people. So by any measure there has been an anomaly, a change, which is even greater when looked at per capita. People are driving less, and this has been sustained now for way longer than any kind of blip.

          Only blind fools or crazed ideologues would conclude that spending 13 billion on new motorways could possibly have any positive economic outcome in the total absence of any pent up demand.



        2. I was actually thinking about that just the other day. Right now the road outside my house gets so busy in the morning I can hardly cross it to catch the bus, which once I’m on it crawls along in the traffic. Once the waterview tunnel is open the traffic volume is meant to halve. So even though I’m miles from the project it will make my bus ride faster, crossing the road safer, and even make cycling an option. I suspect people in Wellington south could experience similar benefits if those RoNS are made.

        3. Your suspicions are unfounded; Wellington is not growing, at least Auckland has population growth to drive something up. As for your bus being stuck, that’s just a lack of the cheapest form of productivity grower know as a bus lane. Hassle AT, they should be ashamed of themselves for their failure to add a single millimetre of bus priority to auckland street recently. have they run out of paint?

        4. Yes, in general it does seem that general reduction of trips in general can be observed. I would agree that of the swarms of reasons that could have played a part, a reduction in new housing would be the least significant (in fact, without quoting figures from any official source, JohnP’s comment above would suggest 40,000 additional households in the ‘old Auckland area’ alone – a shocking reduction by any measure).

        5. Just incase there was some confusion, my comment on the reduction in housing was based on the authors suggestion that it was stopping sprawl that has resulted in the reduction in trips. Of course if we look at the figures from over the past year car use has been shooting up again, too soon to say what is going to happen.

  6. Only shocking if you believed that the increase in driving was ever extendable to infinity… which is clearly ludicrous.

    Now remember all the way through this period we have been building and opening new ‘urgently needed’ highways on the ‘predict and provide’ Traffic Engineering 101 model… essentially spending multiple billions to make driving as attractive as possible, huge oversupply of roadspace [and parking space] designed for free flow at the peak of the peak, plus annual compounding growth.

    At what point do we accept that this policy has no basis in reality [even if was ever that smart]?

    1. What have they been spending multiple billions on? I’m not fully up to speed with the roads around Auckland. They certainly didn’t do a very good job at making things free flow at peak.

  7. But think about it, if you had the likes of the strand with all these cars and trucks driving along it. Then all of a sudden you remove 90% of them would that not create a real chance to make the area nice and friendly. Also for ny st, if you wanted to add in a bus lane you would need to remove either the footpath or a row of houses. I would much rather just have half the traffic.

    1. I suspect Australia would be very similar. Both countries used to have people driving very long distances going on holiday, visiting people or for work. Now with the super cheap airfares it not only faster but cheaper to fly. Most of the western world has experienced this boom in cheap air travel since the mid 90s.

    2. Indeed, although in more recent times the actual number of trips made has been decreasing per capita. And that’s not just because of the recession (which supposedly ended about three years ago).

  8. I’m not sure why Mr Anderson was bothering with this New Geography blog and its rightwing cranks. This McDermott sounds a lonely figure, trying to argue in NZ for a rightwing urban view against the tide, so he goes off to the US to argue it there.

    There’s lots of racist stuff too, they don’t do things by halves.

  9. Actually, the drought in early 2007 prompted New Zealand to enter recession earlier than the onset of the GFC. It’s been downhill or treading water ever since. As there is an overall decline in km/person/year, it’s pretty obvious that the decline in economic output is a causative factor here. Our GDP per capita is still less than it was in 2007, and Auckland has suffered disproportionately more unemployment in this period compared to NZ as a whole.

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