By Ryan McGreal
Published June 15, 2012
We've been hearing more and more of late about how the North American love affair with the automobile seems to be winding down. A recent op-ed in the Guardian notes that the same phenomenon is happening in the UK and the rest of Europe.
First, the breakdown between growth in Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) and Gross Domestic Product (GDP):
Individual vehicle travel in America lost its glamour - and its connection to economic growth. In 2003 when VMT was 2.9 trillion miles, US gross domestic product was just under $11 trillion. In 2011 GDP passed $15 trillion while total vehicle travel was still about 2.9 trillion miles. In 2011 alone, GDP went up 1.5 percent while VMT went down 1.5 percent. VMT per capita is receding as well, with each American now traveling less than 9,500 miles annually.
The same thing is happening in Europe:
The UK has experienced similar trends, with a 13 percent drop in annual trips by cars and vans since 1996, and a 4 percent reduction in annual distance traveled over the same time period. The ratio of vehicle miles traveled to GDP in the core EU 15 states has dropped by more than 10 percent since 2000.
The author notes the usual suspects: online shopping is displacing trips to the mall, mobile social media are incompatible with driving, and the rising cost of automobile ownership for young drivers.
The problem is that policy makers have not yet cottoned onto the fact that their projections of continued growth in driving no longer match the reality we observe:
Transportation policy has been slow to respond to this change in the way we prefer to travel and, at times, actively resists the shift in customer demand for cheaper, cleaner, on-demand travel choices. Forecasters continue to predict 1.6 percent annual increases in vehicular travel demand as far as the eye can see - and are designing road and highway expansions to match.
So the aggregate movement away from endless growth in driving is happening despite the prevailing pattern of public policy incentives to invest in easy motoring. The opportunity costs of a backwards-looking transport policy are deeply troubling: on a vast scale, we're mis-allocating scarce resources into infrastructure that will not meet our changing transportation and land use needs.