Last week the Briefings to government ministers (BIM) were published. I’ve already looked at what the Ministry of Transport (MoT) and NZTA have said about transport in Auckland and so in this post I’m going to look at some of the other points mentioned in the documents. In particular what they say about long term trends and funding issues.
Perhaps the most significant aspect in the BIM from the MoT is that they are finally starting to acknowledge the transport world is changing. That demographics are shifting and people are starting to think and use transport differently to the trends that have persisted for around 60 years. Of course these are the same issues we regularly talk about and previously the ministry seem to have taken “it’s a blip” approach the the real world results. As such it was a pleasant surprise to finally see such an acknowledgement from them.
The MoT have split the changes into three areas:
- A growing and ageing population
- Uncertain demand for personal travel
- New technologies driving improvements in safety, efficiency, and environmental outcomes
A growing and ageing population
Along with the talking about the huge population growth expected in Auckland the briefing notes this important point about the biggest demographic group in most western countries.
By 2036, the number of people in New Zealand aged 65 and over is forecast to double to 1.2 million. The ageing population is more pronounced outside of the major urban areas and international data suggests that individuals halve their vehicle kilometres travelled when they retire. This is likely to radically change transport demands in the regions and reduce the revenue base available to maintain the transport network and meet social expectations for levels of service.
Our large older generations halving their car travel would have a massive impact on the demand for new roads in particular. As that happens the demand for Super Gold cards is going to soar. The next section almost had me falling of my seat when I first read it.
Uncertain demand for personal travel
Around 96 percent of personal travel in New Zealand occurs in private vehicles. Historically, the total distance travelled by private vehicles has increased consistently over time. This consistent growth has been driven by an increase in population and the number of vehicles in the fleet, and an increase in the distance travelled on a per capita basis. However, as shown in figure 2 below, this growth has stalled in recent years.
The average distance travelled per-person in light passenger vehicles has fallen by around 8 percent, from a peak of about 7,600km in 2004, to around 7,000km in 2013. The total distance travelled over the same period has increased marginally (from 39.3 billion kilometres in 2004 to 40.4 billion kilometres in 2013) as a result of population growth. This trend is not unique to New Zealand – it has been observed in a number of developed countries.
There is some debate as to whether this trend is the result of economic factors or a more structural shift in attitudes towards personal transportation. The fact that this trend emerged before the onset of the global financial crisis gives cause to believe that social, behavioural and lifestyle factors (such as the proliferation of smart phones, social media, online shopping and video conferencing) may also be having an influence. A related trend is a reduction in the number of driver licences being issued. In particular, fewer young people are choosing to drive. This suggests that in some groups, the perceived merit of car ownership and use may be declining.
Strong population growth means that overall demand for transport across all modes will continue to increase. Motor vehicles are and will continue to be the predominant mode of transportation in New Zealand for the foreseeable future. However, the rate of growth in motor vehicle travel seen in the twentieth century is unlikely to continue. An ageing population, rising fuel prices, increasing urbanisation, improved mobility and accessibility options, growing health and environmental concerns, and changing consumer preferences all appear to be contributing to reduced per-capita travel in motor vehicles and an increase in demand for alternative transport options
To me this is a huge admission from the MoT and I guess they could only go on so long ignoring the data that was in front of them. I really hope this means we can start to have a more rational discussion about our transport future along with an acknowledgement that we can also shape that future, especially in our urban areas. The last section touches on this future a little however it once again shows the ministry (and we’ve seen it repeated by the Minister) seem to think driverless cars are going to magically change everything.
New technologies driving improvements in safety, efficiency, and environmental outcomes
Technology is everywhere, and it is changing the way we live our lives. It is changing how and when we communicate with each other, whether we travel to purchase goods or have the goods come to us, and where we work. It is changing the demands that we, as a society, place on the transport system and our need for it.
Modern transport systems are becoming increasingly reliant on technology, with increasing levels of automation delivering improvements in safety and efficiency. In the long-term, the use of fully autonomous or driverless vehicles has the potential to revolutionise the transport system. In the more immediate term, the increased availability and reducing cost of information technology will offer improvements in efficiency, safety, and social experience. Technology will play an increasingly important role in helping to improve service levels while managing costs.
Moving on, the long term future of the current funding model is raised and it’s clear the MoT is concerned about the future funding stream for transport. Here are some high level predictions for what the MoT say we may see.
In the next ten years:
- The historic link between the rate of economic growth and the level of demand for transport will continue to weaken. We will achieve economic growth without an equivalent increase in transport demand.
- As our population becomes more concentrated in urban areas, local councils with stagnating or declining populations and low growth prospects will find it increasingly difficult to meet the cost of maintaining their existing networks.
In 20-30 years:
- Gradual improvements in the fuel efficiency of cars will slowly erode the effectiveness and fairness of Fuel Excise Duty as a means of collecting revenue from transport users.
- Solutions to congestion in cities are likely to become increasingly expensive. This could increase the tension between cities’ and regions under a national funding system.
- Greater demand for public transport and active modes could put pressure on the National Land Transport Fund, which is collected from motorists.
The first point about the weakening link economic growth and transport demand is something we’ve highlighted a long time ago. This is quite important as the Roads of National Significance are largely based on the idea they will improve the economy. The last point is also an odd one as we know that investing in PT infrastructure can really help bring down operating costs while also boosting revenue due to more customers using the services.
The briefing says impacts of changing trends could have these impacts on the government.
- We will need to answer difficult questions around the amount that should be collected from transport users, what it can (or can’t) be used for, and how it should be distributed around the country.
- As expenditure rises and the amount collected from motorists at the pump decreases, regular increases in fuel taxes will be required. This could prompt changes to the way we collect revenue from transport users.
- Measures to contain costs and transition towards a more sustainable expenditure path will be challenging, particularly for transport providers that are accustomed to continuous improvements to network standards.
- The government should expect increasing pressure for more funding from both larger cities (especially Auckland), which are struggling to pay for the investments required as a result of population growth; and smaller regional centres, which are facing rising costs with fewer rate-payers to fund them.
There are some serious issues in there and it seems the third one could be aimed at large infrastructure builders hoping for continuous large projects like currently seems to be happening. The current set of projects are already putting large pressure on the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) and this is highlighted in this graphic below where expenditure is greater than the revenue being generated.
Lastly it’s interesting to see the current transport spend in the context of New Zealand’s history. It’s currently at 1.3% of GDP which is the highest level it’s been for decades and well above the OECD average of around 1%.
Overall it’s good to finally see some sense starting to come through from the Ministry but the question is, will the government listen?