Saturday, 21 May 2011

Has road traffic in the West peaked?

Transport planners assume economic growth and car use go together; an assumption which is certainly true for the developing world.  And because the latter accounts for most of the world population the overall link between prosperity and car use looks likely to continue, unless some unforeseen factor, like an environmental or fuel crisis, sets in. China, e.g., is forecast to have more cars on the road than the USA by 2030 (Economic Policy, 2008).

Over the last six months or so, speaking to fellow drivers in the UK, there seems to be anecdotal evidence that the roads have become noticeably less busy. I also read a couple of news items which seemed to support this. A temporary blip in the upward trend?

Then I came across an article by James Crabtree in the May issue of Prospect which suggests a long term decline in private automobile use not only in the UK but in much of the west could have started.

This article reports that at the end of 2010 Lee Schipper (University of California, Berkeley) and Adam Millard-Ball  (Stanford, California) finished a study of traffic in 8 countries, including the UK. It was entitled Are we reaching peak travel?  It found that from 2003 the long established correlation between prosperity and travel broke down abruptly, with the mileage per vehicle falling. Schipper and Millard-Ball guessed this was due to congestion and rising fuel costs.

A study by Phil Goodwin et al at Oxford University suggests a more radical trend, at least in the UK. Government travel surveys show that from around 1995 the growth in  miles travelled per car had begun first to slow and then to reverse. The number of trips per car is also falling.

The number of young people driving in the UK is declining quite steeply. The percentage of 17-20 year olds with driving licenses fell from 48 to 36% between the early 1990s and 2007.

Renault, BMW, Audi and other companies are taking this seriously, apparently, as they plan how to sell transport technology to the coming generation.

Maybe young people are more interested in surfing the web and communicating through social networks than living the lifestyles of their parents while paying enormous insurance premiums, fuel charges and interest on car loans. It could also be connected with the steeply rising numbers of university students in the UK.

Whether this is the start of a long term trend we cannot be certain but western governments and the motor industry need to stop assuming ever rising use of the private car as a foregone conclusion.

Author, 2077 AD