Room for improvement - historic New Zealand Light Vehicle traffic forecasts compared with actual growth (source: NZ Ministry of Transport)

One thing many long-term strategic land use and transport plans for Australia’s capital cities lack is any serious attempt to think about, of all things, the long term.

Of course planning for “the future” is a tough one, but even making policy that takes account of the inherent uncertainty of what might or might not happen 20, 30 or 40 years ahead is by and large ignored e.g. see Should strategic planning ignore the future?

There are a number of things Australian urban policy makers and managers could learn from the New Zealand Ministry of Transport’s Future Demand project, which addresses the question of how the nation’s transport system should evolve to support mobility in the future.

Importantly, Future Transport recognises that the decline in travel in developed countries over the last ten years, particularly by car, is extraordinarily important and puts it front and centre as the key issue; it’s supported by a number of specialist technical reports.

This is in stark contrast to most of the metropolitan plans in Australia, notwithstanding the blindingly obvious relevance and importance of the decline in travel for the future planning of our cities e.g. see Are Australians driving more (or a lot less)?.

The Summary Report says one of the key lessons from this decline is the need to understand better the underlying drivers of travel:

We need to move beyond asking people what they are doing to asking them why they are doing it (beyond simply recording the purpose of travel). Indeed, to understand behaviour in terms of future demand, we need to examine people‘s reasons for not travelling as well as for travelling, to better ascertain how travel is experienced and to what extent virtual access is accompanying or substituting for physical access.

Policy makers must also track and critically assess important developments in technology to understand what impact they might have on travel demand. While there’s a danger of excessive techno-optimism, the implications of important technologies like improved mobile communications and autonomous vehicles are usually treated with lip service in the metropolitan plans prepared for Australian cities.

Policy makers should also recognize people’s capacity to adapt; their task is to lead developments that increase confidence that future needs can be met:

This should be alongside if not instead of following people‘s expressed demands (and resistance to change) based on how they currently fulfil their needs (and wants). Feasibility of how we seek to evolve our transport system must nevertheless be acknowledged. Policy intentions and rationale must be clearly communicated.

They also need to appreciate the critical importance of flexibility and the need for the built environment to be robust in the face of uncertain future change. The future is of course uncertain; the one thing they can be most confident about is that a “a projection about the future will be wrong”.

The report makes the important point that transport is not just about mobility, but getting desired outcomes. That can be achieved in part by integrating transport and land use planning processes to better link origins and destinations. However the same outcome can be achieved in some cases by non physical means e.g. via communications.

It goes on to say that policy makers shouldn’t “predict and provide”; they should “decide” the link between demand and provision:

It is not then perhaps a question of predicting future demand but deciding upon the demand that is appropriate and investing in ways to provide for this and ensure it is supported.

It’s also refreshing to see a document that reminds policy-makers it’s possible there might be little change in the future; it might not look that different from today.