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