Have We Reached Peak Travel?

gridlock toys image
What will limit growth in travel: fuel prices or gridlock? Image credit Aidan.Morgan

A new study of travel habits in eight industrialized countries (including United States, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan and Australia) comes to some interesting conclusions: people are travelling less, and it is not just due to higher fuel prices.

Historically, as GDP per capita rose, so did the miles travelled for work or for pleasure. But at some point, it hits a wall.modes-travel.jpg
From an earlier version of the study, PDF Here

The authors of the study, Lee Schipper and Adam Millard-Ball, compared GDP to the distance travelled by car, truck, bus, train, light rail and airplane. Melinda Burns at Miller McCune describes it:

Beginning in 1970, they found, motorized passenger travel grew rapidly in all eight countries as greater prosperity led to rising car ownership and domestic air travel. But after 2000, when per capita GDP in the U.S. hit $37,000, passenger travel stopped growing here. In the other countries, passenger travel leveled out at a GDP of $25,000 to $30,000 per capita.

The authors suggest that there are many possible reasons: gridlock, parking, gas prices, and even an ageing population that doesn't drive as much. It seems that once you reach a certain GDP per capita, everybody who wants to drive is driving. In the abstract to the study they conclude:

We show that total activity growth has halted relative to GDP in recent years in the eight countries examined. If these trends continue, it is possible that an accelerated decline in the energy intensity of car travel; stagnation in total travel per capita; some shifts back to rail and bus modes; and at least somewhat less carbon per unit of energy could leave the absolute levels of emissions in 2020 or 2030 lower than today.

Schipper also concludes that the type of car that we drive is not really relevant anymore. He tells Miller-Mclune:

"My basic thesis is, 'There ain't room on the road,'" he said. "You can't move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem.

"Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can't move."

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Tags: Transportation | Urban Planning


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