Transportation

Driving in Decline but Transport Policy Still Assumes Endless Growth

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 15, 2012

We've been hearing more and more of late about how the North American love affair with the automobile seems to be winding down. A recent op-ed in the Guardian notes that the same phenomenon is happening in the UK and the rest of Europe.

First, the breakdown between growth in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP):

Individual vehicle travel in America lost its glamour - and its connection to economic growth. In 2003 when VMT was 2.9 trillion miles, US gross domestic product was just under $11 trillion. In 2011 GDP passed $15 trillion while total vehicle travel was still about 2.9 trillion miles. In 2011 alone, GDP went up 1.5 percent while VMT went down 1.5 percent. VMT per capita is receding as well, with each American now traveling less than 9,500 miles annually.

The same thing is happening in Europe:

The UK has experienced similar trends, with a 13 percent drop in annual trips by cars and vans since 1996, and a 4 percent reduction in annual distance traveled over the same time period. The ratio of vehicle miles traveled to GDP in the core EU 15 states has dropped by more than 10 percent since 2000.

The author notes the usual suspects: online shopping is displacing trips to the mall, mobile social media are incompatible with driving, and the rising cost of automobile ownership for young drivers.

The problem is that policy makers have not yet cottoned onto the fact that their projections of continued growth in driving no longer match the reality we observe:

Transportation policy has been slow to respond to this change in the way we prefer to travel and, at times, actively resists the shift in customer demand for cheaper, cleaner, on-demand travel choices. Forecasters continue to predict 1.6 percent annual increases in vehicular travel demand as far as the eye can see - and are designing road and highway expansions to match.

So the aggregate movement away from endless growth in driving is happening despite the prevailing pattern of public policy incentives to invest in easy motoring. The opportunity costs of a backwards-looking transport policy are deeply troubling: on a vast scale, we're mis-allocating scarce resources into infrastructure that will not meet our changing transportation and land use needs.

See also:

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted June 15, 2012 at 09:43:26

Any reason to think the trend might turn around (aggressively) if/when the economy starts to pick up again?

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted June 15, 2012 at 09:46:26 in reply to Comment 78540

Strong auto sales so far in 2012 could suggest that.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted June 15, 2012 at 15:08:41 in reply to Comment 78542

Strong auto sales simply mean people are finally trading in their old clunkers (auto sales were down in the past few years - probably people just hanging onto their existing vehicles for a few more years).

It doesn't necessarily mean people are driving more, simply that they're replacing vehicles.

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted June 15, 2012 at 09:44:37

Great link. Very interesting how individuals show signs of moving away from personal vehicles.

There is evidence to suggest Canada is behind this trend: in Canada between 2000 and 2007 (in other words, until the recession hit), kilometres travelled increased by around 1% each year. I don't know what has happened in that specific metric in the last four years since then, but the automobile generally did not fare well in 2008.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted June 15, 2012 at 13:03:38

It's a watershed moment, perhaps, to finally get drivers to pay their way. Many economists think now is the time for governments to inject cash into faltering economies through infrastructure renewal and expansion, and the default investment should be in mass/public transit, not more roads for private cars.

But will the non-driving voting public get their act together and insist on directing funds to this type of infrastructure development? I was pleased to hear Hazel McCallion's recent call for more taxes to ease gridlock, but in response to her comments, "Income tax, sales tax, (vehicle) registration tax . . . I have no preference", I think that fairness dictates that it should be vehicle registration taxes that are increased, not income or sales taxes.

Hell, all new roads and highways in Ontario should be tolled, too.

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By Stockholm Syndrome (anonymous) | Posted June 16, 2012 at 08:23:29

"She Said Kiss Me Somewhere Dirty So We Took One Of Many Convenient Public Transit Options To Hamilton"

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted June 16, 2012 at 10:57:45

There is no natural law that states the 21st century must continue with the social norms of the 20th. Television viewership (once a month or more) dropped off by about 12% last year. A decade ago, suggesting something like this would have had you laughed off the stage. Things change. Things that don't change with them get left behind.

A huge segment of the population is starting to retire, meaning an enormous shift back into cities. Their children (my generation) tend to regard suburbia very differently than their parents - with all the cultural vibrancy of Soviet-style block apartments. Due to both factors, this trend is only going to accelerate.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted June 16, 2012 at 21:59:34 in reply to Comment 78572

Quite right.

There may be a demographic influence at work here - a change in the activity patterns of the boomers would easily affect indicators of a population's driving behaviour, just as their actions have influenced so many other things in society.

I'm not pro-transit or pro-automobile, but people do need to realize that just because something was does not mean it will be, or that it will be exactly as before

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By Weyland (anonymous) | Posted June 16, 2012 at 13:28:47

Suburbia is changing as well, though. It's not just new urbanists who have access to theory. (And "cities", in that analogy, is not strictly synonymous with "downtown," I don't think. Moreover, cities are more attuned to the energy of the young, and if you consider what was actually on offer in our parents' day, the choice may have been half-made for them.) Though I agree with you in large part, there are always variables. We once watched TV in real time and have access to discussed it in person. Now we stream TV shows on our computers or glut on DVD box sets and talk about them through social media. We once gathered around huge vacuum-tube filled radios; now we have satellite and interet feeds to any device able to pluck a signal from the air. Cars have not evolved, but that's not to say they won't. If nobody comes up with a cheaper, cleaner version of petrochem-fuelled internal combustion engines, or a hydrogen fuel cell...

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted June 16, 2012 at 21:53:32

Not that I'm disagreeing with the overall trends, but has anyone looked at how types of trips have been changing? An overall drop in automobile VMT could mean several things - e.g., a reduction in total trips, a reduction in the number of short distance trips, a reduction in longer-distance trips, a reduction in trip lengths of all types, a reduction in trip length for longer trips, etc... It could also mean people have become better at how their trips are chained, so that their trips begin at home but cycle through several destinations without returning home as many times in between as before. And it could represent mode shifts to transit for certain types of trips.

This is all relevant to designing, as the last line of the article says, "transportation policies that suit our needs in the 21st century."

Comment edited by ScreamingViking on 2012-06-16 22:02:16

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