We’ve talked for some time now about how people have been choosing to drive less and how it’s a trend that has been noticed across much of the developed world. The increases in how far we’d travel in cars were so predictable you could almost be safe betting you’re house on them. The chart below is from the Ministry of Transport. While we’ve only recorded Vehicle Kilometres Travelled (VKT) since 2001 the two fuel sales and consumption series are used as a proxy for vehicle growth. Note: VKT figures come from the odometer readings of cars when they get a warrant of fitness.

2015 GPS - Travel Demand & Fuel

Our road evaluation process even used to have a default growth rate set at 4% per annum. That all changed in the middle of the last decade as many countries including New Zealand saw that growth stall. That’s had a huge impact on projections as the Ministry of Transport has started to acknowledge over the last year or so.


Looking around the NZTA website the other day I came across the 2014 VKT data – including at a regional level and the results are quite interesting.

First up here’s the total VKT for all of New Zealand. As you can see it’s gone up slightly (1.0%). You may also notice it’s a little different to the graph above, I’m not quite sure why but the same issue exists on the MoT data set where the overall result doesn’t match the regional data.

2014 VKT - NZ

Looking specifically at Auckland there is quite an interesting trend developing. We’ve talked a lot in the past about changes in VKT per capita but the argument has sometimes come back that even if people travel less per capita, increases in population will negate that and more driving will occur overall. Yet what we’re seeing is that over the last three years VKT in Auckland has been flat and that’s before we take into account population growth – which has been high as shown.

2014 VKT - AKL VKT + Pop

For sake of comparison the graph below includes Christchurch, Waikato and Wellington as the next three largest regions. You can see there’s been continued growth in the first two while VKT in Wellington remains flat.


The results above are just the total VKT for each region, so how do they look on a per capita basis. The chart below shows this. You can see that there are some quite different stories. Wellington continues to trend downwards while Auckland and NZ as a whole are also down slightly. For Auckland, VKT per capita is about the same now as it was in 2001. At the other end of the spectrum the trend for both Christchurch and Waikato is that people are travelling further. In Christchurch I suspect this is largely due to the population becoming increasingly spread out as a result of the earthquakes.

2014 VKT - per capita

There are quite a number of people who will suggest that the results above are just being caused by an economic blip and will return to strong growth again in coming years as the economy improves. Additionally there’s also been a narrative emerging from the likes of the NZTA that investing in roads is about improving the economy and productivity while investing in PT and active modes are just about improving choice. This was highlighted most recently in the NLTP where the NZTA say 55% of spending is going towards “economic growth and productivity”, 23% to safety and 22% to “travel choice, health and environment”. There are also comments such as this:

Within urban areas, increasing the capacity of the network to move more freight, particularly to ports, airports, freight hubs and new development sites, will improve productivity.

In Auckland, for example, the proposed investment in the East-West link will provide more efficient, predictable and safer freight journeys to and from the Onehunga-Penrose area in south Auckland.

So can we blame the lack of VKT growth on the economy?

In a word No. With the exception of a blip around 2008/09 GDP growth from Auckland has been strong. In addition the number of people employed in has also risen

2014 VKT - AKL Econ 2

Of course there is some modes which are growing and the strongest of these is rail which has had annual patronage increases of over 20% the last year. Across all PT modes the per capita growth in kilometres travelled on PT has increased by 188% since 2001 – and the 2015 data is likely to be significantly higher still. The chart below shows this in comparison to the flat VKT volumes. Of course PT travel is still only a small proportion of overall travel but it is one that’s growing and will likely continue to do so.

2014 VKT - AKL VKT vs PTKT

Can increases in the use of public transport and active modes keep the current trends of flat or even falling VKT going?

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  1. I wonder if it is just all the boomers driving less and maybe their grandkids aren’t.
    Anyway, a great graphic to show why we should be putting our money into PT/active transit and stop building new roads.

    1. I would humbly suggest congestion and frustration in Auckland is causing people to think harder about whether to bother taking this or that extra trip and cutting back to only what they really need to do. Driving in Auckland is not a pleasurable activity. The time spent in vehicles may be the same but the distances one can effectively travel in any given time period become less each year.

      1. Why does this remind me of the joke, ‘No-one goes to Coney Island any more – it’s too crowded’?

        Surely VKT would correlate pretty closely with congestion (with possible provisos if trends are significantly different at different places or times of day). So more congestion is unlikely to be the cause of less VKT.

      2. “Driving in Auckland is not a pleasurable activity.”

        Sometimes it’s pleasurable. Heading out into the Waitakeres on the weekend is great, as is travelling against the peak flow over the Harbour Bridge in the morning. But yes, for most trips, it’s not that much fun. Which is why we need to invest in better transport choices rather than doubling down on a strategy of road-building that has seemingly run its course.

        “The time spent in vehicles may be the same but the distances one can effectively travel in any given time period become less each year.”

        Can you please provide any evidence that congestion has increased in Auckland? The last time I took a look at the data, I found that average delays per vehicle-kilometres travelled have trended downwards in Auckland over the last 5-10 years.

      3. People are driving less because the motorways are too congested—that makes a lot of sense.

        But that’s only possible because there is an alternative. If you look at a congestion score, Belgium often comes in first, and often with a wide gap to the second in place. One factor there is the ultra-dispersed building pattern on the countryside, which guarantees a lot of people will never have an alternative to driving. As a consequence, over there it’s considered a luxury if you spend less than an hour per day driving to work and back. It’s common for people to be underway for more than an hour each way. Coming from Belgium, I’d say there’s hardly any congestion in Auckland.

        In case of the harbour bridge, it is now possible to commute from the Shore to the CBD in a reasonable amount of time. For a lot of people it is faster than driving.

        And allowing an extra 20,000 people to travel to the CBD on public transport will cost way less than doing so by building an extra crossing for cars (and it will probably result in a lower average travel time as well). So even if the decline is due to congestion I’d still support investing in PT, rather than extra highway capacity.

  2. Which GDP data are you using – as different data sets could give you quite different relationships (e.g. VKT for calendar year XXXX vs. a GDP figure from 1st quarter of year XXXX which is a rolling annual)

  3. Any comments on why Canterbury has experienced (the only) significant growth in VKT? Is it their roads are finally being repaired, is it the post earthquake rebuild has been so car focused?

    1. I’d say the Waikato has too and a few other regions as well. For Canterbury I think it is likely a result of a more dispersed population and employment. A lot more people living in the nearby towns and commuting to suburban offices

    2. Yes Matt is right. Christchurch’s problematic and relatively un-urban form from before the quakes has been magnified in the rebuild. It does not exhibit key urban characteristics; it is now a place more like the highly dispersed non-cities of the American middle. And key to that is high auto-dependence and dispersed commercial activity; un-agglomerated, as it were.

      My hunch is this will lead to poor economic performance over the years ahead, or at least a very different economic pattern to cities across the region. So NZ really is left with Auckland as the only actually urban place of scale. Wellington is urban at its heart, but is small, not really growing, and dependent on the government sector.

      The quick thing that the charts above tell you is that Canterbury is not a city, the economy of Christchurch, like Hamilton, is dependent on its hinterland, and that this is not the case in Auckland or Wellington.

      1. Wellington has a few good industries (software, film), but needs the kind of transformation that would allow it to sustain growth even with static Government employment.

        Meanwhile, there has been no development of a mature commuter-focused transit system (Council structures and legacy infrastructure are the hold-ups), and fares remain very high by international standards.

      2. Well interpreted patrick, spot on with my thoughts to. Although Christchurch has the ability to become a urban centre and the development of the old ‘Red Zone’ could be crucial to that direction.

        1. I think these results represents Canterbury’s transport deficit that is decades old. In the last 10-15 years Auckland’s transport deficit has began to be addressed with the likes of Britomart, electrification, express busways etc.The greater Wellington region has 150km of passenger rail and after Transmission Gully something like 100km of motorways. Canterbury has about 30km of motorways and that is about it. As a region Canterbury has slightly more people, about the same size economy and much faster population growth than Greater Wellington.

          It hasn’t helped that Brownlee has completely messed up the CBD rebuild and CCC planning rules have made Christchurch property prices much more expensive than the neighbouring satellite towns and lifestyle blocks.

          The result is as Patrick says an extreme sprawl solution that is highly automobile dependent. For NZ to continue to ignore Canterbury’s urban needs is a huge missed opportunity for the country.

        2. Yes Brownlee’s extraordinary ignorance of the relationship between urban form and the city economy is resulting in a very poor outcome for the people of Christchurch and nation’s economy. Sad.

        3. The Canterbury earthquakes and subsequent demolition of the city centre really did give us a great illustration of the value of a reasonably-sized city centre for transport and congestion outcomes.

          Christchurch’s CBD only contained around one in four of the city’s jobs prior to the earthquakes, so it was hardly dominant in an economic sense. Those jobs have since been dispersed to many other locations that are inherently more difficult to serve with public transport. The number of people shifting from PT to driving hasn’t been that large, but it’s been significant enough to result in much worse congestion.

          To put it another way: There are around 100,000 people employed in Auckland’s city centre, and perhaps another 50,000 people at universities. About 50% of them get to their jobs or courses on public transport.

          If Auckland’s city centre was destroyed, those 100,000 jobs and 50,000 students would have to go elsewhere. If they ended up in PT-unfriendly places, we could be looking at an additional 50,000+ cars on the road every morning. Traffic carnage, really.

    3. I’d say a combination of issues, a prominent effect (more need than issue) is the proportion of contractors, builders, engineers etc, racing around the city at the moment, still repairing homes. This would have a massive boost on VKT as a result. Then there is the fact that the rebuild has been so far, quite car focused, and the amount of empty sites around the city being turned into temporary carparks. A lot of the roads, not all of them, have been repaired so you are driving on nice black gold at the moment too. And then also partly because of the quakes, and partly because of how Christchurch has developed you have the dispersed population.

      If someone in power had a bit of guts, they would lease/buy Auckland’s old trains to start some commuter services in Christchurch, traffic is starting to buildup down there, although still nowhere near Auckland’s traffic levels, its enough to frustrate cantab’s and some will look at alternatives to beat the traffic. The bus network is ok, but there is really no Rapid Transport to speak of in Christchurch.

      1. “A lot of the roads, not all of them, have been repaired so you are driving on nice black gold at the moment too.” _Rubbish!

        Bugger all roads have been repaired to “new” standards. The government in its cost sharing agreement arbitrarily decided that the standard for road repair after fixing the underlying horizontal infrastructure was not ‘new’ but some “pre-existing” quake standard. This being an excuse to hand back road repairs to CCC general maintenance process. Thus roads will take 20-30 years to be repaired in Christchurch and CCC will have its transport budget focused on repairing roads for that time.

        1. I haven’t been to Christchurch for about 2months, but before then I was down there on a weekly basis I can tell you most of the roads, apart from the eastern suburbs are much nicer to drive on than Auckland roads. The main problem with Christchurch is actually the drivers themselves.

  4. Interesting that VKT and fuel consumption are still aligned. I wonder when we will start to see the benefit of more fuel efficient vehicles, Hybrids and EVs.

    Will be interesting to see what the petrolheads do as Holdens and Fords (the V6 and V8’s) stop production over the next year or so.

    1. I doubt that the big American manufacturers will discontinue models that service those segments as long as there is demand. The models maybe called something different, but I’m sure they’ll use it as an opportunity to rationalise brands and reduce costs. E.g. Falcon and Commodore become Mustang and Monaro.

      The bigger story is the reduction in licensing and delay in getting them, which must scare the freight industry, as if teenagers aren’t getting their drivers licenses until later if at all, where will the drivers of all those trucks come from. Unless they won’t be needed through the benefits of automation, which I’m not certain is as close as politicians would have us believe.

      1. Yes it will be interesting to see what happens. I think it is easier to justify to the wife a HSV 4 door sedan compared to a full on mid life crises 2 door Shelby Mustang.

      2. They will never put the Mustang name on a sedan. It’s brand equity is huge, even internationally, and they won’t devalue it. Ford and GM have lots of names that they could resurrect (GM with all the Pontiac and Oldsmobile names) or use existing names on same models, the Monaro becoming the Fusion, for example. It will be interesting for car enthusiasts to watch.

  5. This is very very big news. We do live in a new age, one where the reliable assumptions from the second half of last century about investment in transport infrastructure no longer hold. Chart 4 is a zinger; population growth has now crossed over driving growth presumably for the first time since the mid 1950s.

    Economic growth correlates better with PT uptake in Auckland than with vehicle use. The RoNS, for Auckland, and probably Wellington, are based on inaccurate assumptions. The aggressive investment in urban motorways is akin to building more whaling stations after the supply of whales had started to decline. This is not to say we don’t need cars and roads but that the best value comes from the marginal user and that user, in Auckland, is on Transit. It’s about what is needed next.

    I trust the smart people at MoT and NZTA to get this; but the question is are the politicians be willing to make the effort to change the views they’ve grown up with? It is hard to get people to shift what they just ‘know’. And then there’s the problem that Auckland is an anomaly in NZ. It is different here. Cities are different. What they ‘know’ in the Waikato, or Southland, just isn’t true in Auckland.

      1. Yeah I wouldn’t read into cross over as that’s just a result of axes, more important is the clear flat lining of VKT at the same time as a clear uptick above the previous trend in population growth

      2. I think the scales on the vertical axis should be changed so in the early years, they are growing at the same rate.That way, when they start to diverge is when extra population does not mean extra VKT.

        1. ?? How did you arrive at that conclusion? There are many more factors such as congestion etc impacting distances (able) to be covered. Kind of like saying we can stop buying butter as the butter container is empty and stats from that point would then show less people are eating butter, so lets stop producing butter?

        2. Building roads manufactures congestion it doesn’t reduce it. So congestion is no reason to supply more road space. Auckland does not lack road supply; it lacks good enough alternatives. And these figures show that’s what the market wants.

        3. Except that the butter container is overflowing with all the butter we have bought / new motorway km we have built in the last decade. But still no one wants to eat the stuff!

        4. Id say it more like buying a butter tray, then buying butter to go in it. Suddenly the butter tray is full, so instead of buying less butter and using what we have more efficiently and becoming more healthy we buy another butter tray, which in turn starts filling up. Now we got two trays full of butter and someone becoming rather obese to justify its use.

      3. Yes, unfortunately that graph is a little misleading. It looks like population is growing much more steeply than VKT, but that’s just a result of the scales that have been chosen. In fact, over the period the graph covers, both have grown by around the same amount, maybe VKT slightly more.

        Certainly, something different seems to be happening in the last couple of years, but I suppose we need longer to see if there is a trend.

  6. For the most recent data shown in the tables above average fuel consumption is 8km/l. (Which is about what my Volvo gets so it’s not all that great.) Also, Auckland represents 31% of VKT, enough below its share of population to indicate that there is something different going on, which, of course, is PT as a function of density. Hey it works!

    1. I wanted to add that highways have been sold as economic growth generators forever, and it’s been a lie for just as long. Highways are first and foremost transportation facilities and it’s laughable that NZTA seems to be spending 0% of its money on transportation. Give me strength.

    2. Those in rural areas would do more VKT than urban so I don’t think you can use your interpretation directly, likewise they dont have PT. Need to look at the trend which is why graph 4 is a bit disappointing – the other way to do it would be to create an index VKT/population.

    3. That efficiency figure sounds bad, but as far as I can tell that figure includes all transport fuel, so includes; trucks, buses, diesel trains, and may include shipping.

      1. According to this article (http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/9285019/Growth-booms-in-Wairarapa-as-Wellington-slows), Wellington CIty grew by 6.5% between 2006 and 2013. Porirua was also 6.5, Kapiti 6.3, Upper Hutt 4.6. Carterton District in the Wairarapa topped the North Island charts at 16% (1100+ people is a big jump for a little town). Not sure if the 0.5% for Lower Hutt is a typo, but in any case something north of 5% for the region sounds right.

  7. Would cumulative rounding account for the discrepancy between regional and national totals?

    These charts really are damning in terms of the continued focus on building more, bigger roads. Are we now at the point where the entire point of laying more tarmac is to try and induce demand to justify the point? Because coupled with the post-implementation reviews we’re seeing pretty clear indications that motorway expansion is completely failing to live up to its hype.

  8. The key take away from Matt’s work here, however you organise the charts, is that in Auckland recent investment in driving amenity and in PT systems has been responded to differently. With PT investments strong latent demand has been uncovered, yet road expansions have not generated the uptake expected.

    This is not surprising as we have very extensive and mature road networks and arguably a saturated market: high vehicle per capita numbers. And very immature and incomplete PT systems.

    So we should not be surprised to find that the marginal user is more likely to be a PT customer than a driver. And, especially given the economic benefits of higher PT use, we should be investing more for the marginal user.

    1. Good point Patrick. NZ shouldn’t ignore the marginal user in Canterbury, which after Auckland is the next biggest in number.

    2. I agree,
      The population has increased, public transport use has increased and VKT has remained flat both in absolute terms and per capita. this would indicate that the extra demand created by population increase is being met by PT.
      I would say that sufficient investment in PT would likely keep VKT flat. As the PT network is under developed the potential to grow capacity in PT is large and certainly larger and more cost effective than growing capacity on roads. Thus any roading project that is justified on the premise that more capacity is needed for future demand is on shaky ground.
      This would suggest that the majority of new spending should be going to PT, with most of the spending on roads going to fix problems that are unlikely to be solved by increasing the capacity of PT

  9. “VKT in Wellington remains flat”
    “VKT in Wellington remains flat”
    “VKT in Wellington remains flat”
    “VKT in Wellington remains flat”

    Will someone please tell this to the promoters of Moar Motorways down here, who seem to think we still have 4% annual VKT growth and always will.
    And to those who think public transport is good enough now and that there couldn’t possibly be any latent demand for more. . .

    I have tried and no-one will listen.

    1. The truth is contained in the first chart Matt posted: They think that this is a temporary blip, akin to what was experienced in the 1980s.

      That might be true, but it’s hardly a certainty. And given that we’re dealing with billions of dollars of public money, I’d argue that a much more cautious approach is needed. If traffic growth starts resuming at its previous pace, then we should talk more roads. At worst, in that scenario, we’ve undergone a few years of extra congestion. But if traffic growth doesn’t pick up again, then we have just saved a lot of money that would have been mis-spent.

      1. What got VKT growth going again after the 70’s was $20/barrrel oil. While the Saudi’s trying to bankrupt the US frackers has reduced price recently, anyone who thinks oil price is going to go down and stay at $20/ barrel ($30 in todays terms) is wrong. We know conventional oil has peaked, we know fracked oil wells have steep declines in production and we know we have to leave a lot of the fossil fuels left in the ground. So on what grounds do the NZTA and/or the MoT think its a temporary blip?

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