We’ve been discussing the ‘peaking‘ of car travel – not only in Auckland and New Zealand – but internationally too, for a long time on this blog. What’s really interesting though is to look at the breakdown of this data into things like drivers license rates, car ownership rates, distance driven per person and so on. The Atlantic Cities has a recent article which looked into this further:
The handy thing about “peak car” as a concept is that it can nominally be proven in many ways. You’ve got Peak Driver’s License. Peak Registered Vehicle. Peak Gas Consumption. Peak Miles Traveled. There are peaks per person, per household, per demographic. Then you’ve got your absolute peaks when you add up all of our vehicles and miles together, as if we were all cruising the highways at the same time.
The point of all of this is that any one number is a little dubious, especially in light of that inconvenient economic recession. But Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has been methodically slicing the question every which way. And the totality of the picture he’s built is starting to look pretty convincing.
Earlier this summer, Sivak released data showing that the number of registered light-duty vehicles in America (cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, vans) had peaked per person, per licensed driver and per household in the early to mid 2000s, before the onset of the recession. Because the U.S. population continues to grow, he predicted that the absolute number of vehicles had not yet peaked. But per person and household, we seem willing now to own fewer of the things.
Now he has released a follow-up study [PDF] of how much we drive. As a nation, our total mileage has leveled off (but again, because the population continues to grow, we may surpass this 2006 peak again)
The graph showing distance driven still blows me away at the extent to which this is a disruption from what’s happened before:
But what’s most interesting is looking behind this result into what makes it up on a per capita basis.
The article highlights that all these peaks occurred around 2004 – well before the recession of 2008 and at a time when the US economy (and indeed the NZ economy) was still ticking along quite nicely.
There are many questions which arise from this kind of analysis – that I hope someone is looking into in more detail:
- To what extent has the economic downturn in recent years contributed to these trends and is it likely a sustained economic upswing would revert things back to ‘normal’? I tend to think not as we have already seen a lot of economic recovery and little change in current trends – and even if that happened we’d still be way below previously forecast traffic volumes.
- To what extent will a decline in per capita travel eventually be outweighed by population growth? This is the key issue in Auckland where it’s pretty clear that each person will probably drive less in the future as the city intensifies and has improved public transport – but will population increase still mean an increase in absolute totals? By how much?
- To what extent are these trends being taken into account by future planning? We know that NZTA have been blatantly dishonest about the forecast traffic volumes for the $5 billion Harbour Crossing project – but how rampant is this blatant dishonesty? We also know that they have now removed the ability of roading projects to use constantly increasing traffic volumes as a justification