Factors that Influence Driving: Past, Present and Future (Green = Indicates Higher Per-Capita Driving, Yellow=Neutral, Stable or Unknown, Red=Indicates Lower Per-Capita Driving). Source: PIRG

Understanding prospective high-level changes that bear on urban policy is a key task of strategic planning. That’s why so much effort goes into preparing strategic plans like those currently being finalised for Sydney and Melbourne (fn. 1). It’s a fraught task but as we necessarily have to make many choices now (e.g. for long-lasting infrastructure), it’s an extraordinarily important one.

Last week transport engineer David Levinson had a go at identifying 14 key technology trends shaping transportation in the US. His description is long but interesting throughout – I recommend you read it to appreciate the many examples he gives.

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Or you can read this much shorter précis by Reihan Salam, Transportation trends and the American future. It necessarily leaves out a lot of elaboration but Professor Levinson has endorsed it (Mr Salam also reduced the original list from 14 to 13 trends):

  1. as state and local governments take on more responsibility for surface transportation, they will tend to make better decisions on capital and operating and maintenance costs, as they will be less skewed by the prospect of “free” or cheap federal financing;
  2. because the U.S. surface transportation network is fairly mature, the emphasis will shift from new construction to “fix it first“;
  3. the rise of electric vehicles will contribute to the collapse in motor fuel tax revenues, thus necessitating alternatives like VMT (vehicle-miles travelled) taxes or increases in retail sales taxes;
  4. the spread of sensors will facilitate traffic management in a variety of ways, reducing the burdens of congestion;
  5. the continuing “dematerialization” of the economy will tend to reduce the number of automobile trips;
  6. delivery will increasingly substitute for fetching, i.e., firms like Fresh Direct and Amazon will continue to train U.S. consumers to rely on e-commerce rather than trips to the supermarket;
  7. though car-sharing and bike-sharing won’t become extremely common outside of dense cities, their market share will likely grow — and the rise of autonomous vehicles may well lead to explosive growth in car-sharing;
  8. as people rely more on virtual social networks and less on local social networks, local travel might decline as long-distance travel increases, i.e., I’ll make fewer trips around the neighborhood, but more trips to visit relatives 2-3 hours away by plane;
  9. choice in education will tend to mean that more parents will ferry their children beyond their neighborhoods to send them to school, or to afterschool enrichment programs;
  10. real-time information transmitted by smartphone will further encourage spur-of-the-moment planning and novelty-seeking (“let’s try this new place that gets X stars on OpenTable”);
  11. big boxes will get bigger, and when families make trips to physical outlets for groceries, they will be more inclined to buy in bulk and to buy less often;
  12. as work weeks shrink, so will the number of vehicles on the road during rush hour — though off-peak travel will increase somewhat;
  13. and most interestingly, the “end of driving,” i.e., the rise of autonomous vehicles, will lead to more mobility for children, the elderly, and the disabled and it will facilitate exurbanization.

Bear in mind that Professor Levinson has consciously restricted his focus to trends. For example, he excludes congestion pricing from his list on the grounds that there aren’t enough implementations in the US to qualify it as a trend (fn. 2).

I think this is a great list (I’ve discussed many of them in these pages before) although I think there are big differences in their relative importance and plausibility. Here are some comments and observations (referenced to Mr Salman’s version of the list):

  • (re trend 1.) I think this trend is more relevant to the US than Australia at this time, although Tony Abbott’s promise that a government led by him wouldn’t fund urban public transport might herald a structural change.
  • (re trend 2.) The high cost and political difficulty of retro-fitting transport infrastructure in dense urban areas means the emphasis must necessarily shift to making existing infrastructure work better e.g. by road pricing; better networking; giving road space to other modes.
  • (re trend 3.) The fuel excise in Australia isn’t hypothecated to roads, but it’s a very big revenue source. It brought in $15.5 billion in 2008/09 ($10 billion net). It would’ve been much more if indexation hadn’t been removed in 2001.
  • (re trend 7.) I expect car-sharing (actually it’s more like car rental – riding a train is sharing) will grow, but still only account for a microscopic share of total travel. Widespread use of autonomous cars is the only way I see it possibly having a significant role.
  • (re trend 8.) The dominant view among researchers is electronic communications increase the demand for face-to-face contact – and hence increase the demand for travel – rather than reduce it.
  • (re trend 9.) What Prof Levinson calls consumer sovereignty also applies in other areas like specialist health care.
  • (re trend 10.) I think the interesting trend Prof Levinson identifies is crowd-sourcing information from travellers in real-time via their smartphones and GPS e.g. Tom Tom congestion index.
  • (re trend 12) The primary change here is people study longer and so enter the workforce later; and retire (or go part-time) earlier.
  • (re trend 13) The likely timing is arguable, but when they get critical mass autonomous vehicles will likely constitute an enormous change to transport and land use.

There’re some other primarily economic and social trends I’ve covered before (e.g. Why are Australians driving less than they used to?) that could also be considered as an extension to Professor Levinson’s list. See also the exhibit (above) prepared by the US Public Interest Research Group (PIRG).

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(fn. 1) I thought I’d check Professor Levinson’s ideas against the discussion paper for Melbourne’s forthcoming strategic plan. To my surprise, it barely touches on the sorts of high-level trends considered by Professor Levinson. There’re some cursory mentions of the obvious suspects like globalisation, climate change, population growth and ageing but – astonishingly – not much else (e.g. see Chapter 2, Why do we need a metropolitan planning strategy?).

(fn. 2) There seems to be an inconsistency here – there are even fewer implementations of autonomous cars. He also confines himself to technology trends, yet changes in working hours don’t fit that description well