Transport - general

Jun 11, 2014

Will we drive a whole lot less in the future?

We're driving a lot less than we did even ten years ago, largely because of changes in technology. Although cars will remain the main mode for a long time yet, we'll likely drive less in the future

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Annual average per capita travel in State capitals, car vs public transport (source data: BITRE Yearbook 2013)

The exhibit shows changes in the level of travel by car and public transport in the six Australian state capital cities over the last 40 years.

It’s clear we’re motoring a great deal less than we used to. Data collected by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics shows growth in per capita driving started to level off in the mid-nineties and began to fall from around 2004-05.

But it’s also evident from the exhibit that very little of the decline in driving in Australia’s capitals can be explained by increased use of public transport. As I’ve discussed before, it doesn’t have much to do with the increased attractiveness of inner city living either.

The decline is occurring to varying extents in a number of developed countries and is strongest amongst millennials, particularly young men (see What’s really putting the brakes on millennial’s driving?).

There are many plausible explanations for the fall (see Why are Australians driving less than they used to?), including greater difficulty of obtaining a driver’s license; travel saturation; increased traffic congestion; and more.

Structural causes seem to have strong explanatory power. In their study of the travel behaviour of 20-29 year olds in six developed countries (see Are millennials driving less?), Kuhnimhof et al concluded the key explanations for the reduction in driving are more young adults in tertiary education, lower workforce participation, and starting families at a later age.

It’s probable all these factors contribute to varying extents, but I suspect the key explanation is the obvious one: we’re increasingly substituting electronic communications for driving; we’re making fewer trips.

For those with the ability to exploit the potential of technology, the warrant for driving is considerably weaker than it was 10 years ago. More and more transactions can now be done from the workplace or home (or anywhere) without the need for a travel.

It’s possible, even likely, we’re only witnessing the start of a sustained downward trend in travel, especially driving.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue in Race against the machine that firms and organisations have only started tapping the full potential of computing power to substitute for transactions and communications that currently require a physical presence.

They say we’re just entering the period of rapid exponential growth (“the second half of the chess board”) when the most far-reaching effects of increases in computing will have the largest effect.

Advances like the Google autonomous car, Watson the Jeopardy! champion supercomputer, and high-quality instantaneous machine translation, then, can be seen as the first examples of the kinds of digital innovations we’ll see as we move further into the second half – into the phase where exponential growth yields jaw-dropping results.

As was the case with earlier major technological advances like steam and electricity, business takes time to adapt its production and marketing models to the new technology. Recognising and exploiting the full potential of the technology starts slowly and then accelerates.

Eliminating the need for travel isn’t all one-way; some activities still rely heavily on face-to-face contact. Indeed, the increasing knowledge component in production means the need for physical proximity is increasing in some industries like finance; hence the (modest) revival of the CBD and public transport.

In these industries, electronic communications facilitate face-to-face contact and hence are a complement to, not a substitute for, activities that involve intense face-to-face interactions (see Why can’t Yahoos telecommute anymore?).

But the increased value of face-to-face contact only seems to apply to particular activities. It seems there’re many more transactions and pursuits – probably mostly outside work – that can be done without the need for travel and, hence, for driving.

It’s still very likely that cars and motorcycles will remain the main mode in our cities for many decades to come, but a continued decline in the per capita number of trips we make also seems likely (1).

This is the sort of issue strategic planners should be thinking much harder about. As noted here, Should strategic planning ignore the future?, it’s barely on the radar in some places. It’s not enough for a metropolitan strategic plan to merely note what’s happened historically; it should assess what’s likely to happen in the future, evaluate the implications, and specify what action should be taken.


  1. The experience in the US suggests the decline in per capita travel/driving is more likely the result of fewer trips rather than shorter trips.
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10 thoughts on “Will we drive a whole lot less in the future?

  1. boscombe

    Strange how with all this less driving going on the roads get ever more congested ….

  2. Socrates

    Economic causes do not explain this. Motoring costs overall did not go up faster than inflation in the past decade, and not until after the change started in 2004.

    So now that people actually are driving less, and walking and cycling more, will we change the sort of infrastructure we build? I fear not.

  3. David Penington

    It’s good to see figures for milage per person instead of per car, since more cars per person may be reducing the latter.

    Aren’t people flying more, with continuing cheap airfares? Take the occasional flight interstate instead of driving interstate, and flying to holidays interstate or overseas instead of driving somewhere within state, and you’ll get that sort of reduction in travel by car.

  4. boscombe

    More roads are built if people want more roads. If people don’t want more roads, they won’t be built. In Perth at least people want more spent on roads – as well as on public transport.

    Maybe Vancouver started it’s change of policy before it had suburbs that sprawl for 100 kms like Perth has now. Maybe the people in Vancouver wanted to live in higher densities. Some people in Perth do, but most don’t. So, in Perth, if the city population is rapidly growing, and many of those people want low density living, they will want money spent on new roads and freeways. You can tell them they should want what you want, but they still don’t.

  5. IkaInk

    @boscombe – City of Vancouver (about the size of C.o.Melbourne, C.o.Yarra, C.o.Stonnington + C.o.Port Philip combined) has had a policy of no new road capacity firmly in place since 1997, well before this it had virtually stopped building new roads anyway. In fact the road capacity available to single occupancy Vehicles in C.o.Vancouver has actually shrunk considerably; as road space has been re-used for transit lanes, bike lanes, some high occupancy vehicle lanes, parks, traffic calming, etc.

    Traffic in 2000 was at 1965 levels, despite the population more than doubling in the meantime. Think this has retarded Vancouver’s growth? Housing prices are the highest in Canada (which has its problems, but certainly is evidence that the city is sought after). It’s considered one of the worlds most livable cities by virtually every survey of the kind. It’s economy is doing very well by Canadian standards. They’re also the only big city on N.America that has seen average journey to work times actually fall in the last 10 years.

    So no, building more roads is not necessary to accommodate population growth, at least not in established areas.

  6. Tom the first and best


    Wrong. building more roads encourages more driving and thus more traffic and thus more road building. It is public and active transport that needs investing in to cause mode shift and cater for population growth that way.

  7. boscombe

    Although we, as individuals, might drive fewer miles, our cities are growing rapidly, so more people driving: thus the need for continued investment in roads, freeways ….

  8. Steve777

    In Sydney twenty years ago, unless you were going to the CBD, you could drive to your destination and park nearby for free. The cost, given that you already have sunk costs and fixed costs in car ownership, was basically the cost of petrol, much less than the cost of fares to travel by public transport, assuming that it was available. The time taken was maybe a third of what it would have taken by public transport.

    In recent years in Sydney and I expect in other capital cities, driving is becoming an increasingly less attractive proposition. Reasons include:

    * Increasing congestion, ably assisted by local councils in implementing strategic road closures and turn restrictions, offsetting the time advantages
    * The disappearance of unrestricted free or low cost parking in the inner and middle ring suburbs and near major centres. This further offsets time advantages by adding a long walk at your destination unless you are prepared to pay high parking fees.
    * Increased costs – more tolls roads, parking, petrol prices increasing faster then the CPI.

    Especially for commuting, the economics are changing. Where public transport options are available, driving costs several times the cost of a weekly ticket and saves much less time than it used to.

  9. Liamj

    No mention of oil price? Its only tripled in last decade. Ok petrol prices haven’t quite risen as much, but countries that are more price sensitive/import more like Japan, UK & Germany show larger falls in kms travelled.

    I’d love to see an all-inputs energy accounting of say shopping via car-to-mall vs., as i’m not convinced that the ‘internet revolution’ is much more than switching fuels from oil to coal/electricity.

  10. hk

    In my age group cohort of 65+, we are a making a smaller number of car trips, spending less time in cars and contributing less to the annual distance travelled by car than we did ten or twenty years ago. As the 65+ cohort as a percentage of the total population in Australia will only increase predictive modelling will show a trend to even less car based time use.
    Interestingly non of this sort of modelling was included in the recent E-W link models.

    One wonders whether the side stepping for an early election in Victoria is more about satisfying contract signing time frame requirements for the power factions to benefit from the E-W link building. Obviously more insightful articles like this one by Alan will throw even more doubt on the commercial and bankable long term viability of the project.

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