Peak Travel

Paul Raven @ 05-01-2011

Trends suggest that the demand for transit is flattening out in the industrialized West. Ars Technica:

… prior to recent years, two forms of transit have driven most of the growth in miles travelled, and thus energy use: air and car travel. And, although air travel has continued to increase, car travel has started to decline (a trend that predates the oil price shock of recent years). As a result, since 2003, total miles travelled have flattened out and has started to decline¬†in some countries. This flattening out is even more apparent when graphed against per-capita GDP. Here, most countries show a flattening out once they hit a per-capita GDP of $25,000 (in the US, the figure is $35,000, while Sweden shows a continuing rise).

There are lots of individual features hidden within these general trends. For example, the US drop in the energy intensity of car travel stalled once milage standards languished in the 1990s. In contrast, European countries started raising their gasoline taxes around the same time, and experienced the opposite trend. Longer flights are also less energy intensive, which means that domestic air travel is less energy-intensive in nations like the Australia, Canada, and the US simply as a function of geography.

Nevertheless, the authors argue that the GDP-related trends, which are more consistent across countries, suggest that there might be some common factors underlying the decline in travel, such as urbanization, increased taxes, aging populations, a saturation of automobile ownership, and a basic desire not to spend any more time behind the wheel. Carpooling has also seemed to decline to the point where it probably won’t go down much further.

The folk behind the study are wisely reluctant to project into the future, though they suggest that “continued, steady growth in travel demand cannot be relied upon.”

I fully suspect that the next few weeks will see a rash of pundits suggesting that this flattening of trends means we can stop worrying about carbon emissions and climate change, to be met by a rash of counter-claims at the opposite extreme; between all the shouting, nothing of note will be achieved. Both sides can call me back when they start basing their narratives on the evidence, rather than crowbarring the evidence into their narrative. This Red vs Blue bullshit is starting to bore me.

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One Response to “Peak Travel”

  1. Your Obedient Serpent says:

    There’s another factor connected to rising GDP that could have an impact on travel and transit: improved communications infrastructure. Maybe telecommuting HAS taken more of a hold than is superficially apparent; I don’t know many people who telecommute full-time (and I know my own attempts have been disastrous), but I do know a LOT of people who telecommute Now And Then. Staying in touch with family members, having conferences with personnel scattered across the country or the world — hellfire, even OUTSOURCING. These are all communications-related factors that can reduce the miles traveled in cars, and I’m surprised it didn’t come up at all in the quoted passage or the commentary.