Since the oil spike in the early seventies, enthusiasts for public transport have predicted that high prices for petrol would trigger a public transport revolution as people finally broke their “addiction” to the motor car and changed their travel mode to buses and trains.
Since then, price bubbles have increased public transport use, and lowered car miles traveled. But these changes have proved to be short-lived. More drive more.
Yet standard theory says that people respond to prices. Surely people should respond to increased petrol prices by changing their mode of travel. But why hasn’t it happened in the past? More importantly, will it magically happen in the future?
The answer is that most drivers do respond to increased oil prices but they have many choices as to how to respond.. You may switch to public transport provided it takes you where you want to go at a reasonable price. The problem is that part of the “reasonable price” includes the price of the increased time it takes to get to the final destination. Also, surveys reveal that when people climb into their car at the end of the day they feel they have actually arrived at “home.” Bus and train travel significantly defers their arrival in their own private space.
So, given time, people change their behaviour in many ways, so as to maintain the comfort, convenience, and overall efficiency of the car. For example:
- They may decide to buy a smaller or more fuel-efficient car.
- They may relocate either their home or their job to reduce travel costs and times – provided the land market is flexible.
- If the local land-market is inflexible they may move to another town, or another country.
- They may modify all their travel behaviour by better trip planning, commuter car-pooling (with prioritized parking) and general ride and task sharing.
- They may choose to telecommute, car-pool, park-share, and ride-share.
Fuel costs are only a small component of total motoring costs. Cars today are lasting longer, are more reliable, are cheaper to run, and are kept in use longer. When oil was cheaper total costs of motoring were higher. That’s one reason why we are driving more.
Sudden spikes in petrol prices do affect the transportation modal split, but these spikes carry less significance than media reports would suggest, and tend to be of much shorter duration than the advocates of transportation revolution predict. People know how they want to live and they value their personal mobility.
This is not a trivial issue because councils – and the Auckland Council for example – are demanding that Government funds massive investments in public transport because of the current oil spike, the upward blip in public transport use, and of course “Peak Oil.”
The Peak Oil pessimists seem to believe no alternative to the petrol driven car exists. They also seem to ignore the increasing evidence of vast oil and gas reserves being discovered from everywhere the eastern Mediterranean to the shores off Brazil and the American Great Plains.
A host of emerging technologies will more than compensate for any increase in the price of oil-based fuels – even for vehicles that continue to run on fossil fuels. Think of the hybrid car topping up the batteries from solar panels in the roof. Robot cars and electronically convoyed trucks hugely increase lane capacity. There are so many it would need another column to list them. The pessimists complain that it will take far too long to ring such changes in the vehicle fleet. In the next breath they talk about reshaping the urban-form, mainly by the densification of our major cities. Short of another Luftwaffe arriving on the scene, such urban renewal is hardly likely to happen overnight. Technology churns faster than cities. Try buying a Gestetner, a Telex machine, a slide rule, or a film for your camera.
Urban economist, Anthony Downs, writing in “Still Stuck in Traffic?” reminds us:
"....trying to decrease traffic congestion by raising residential densities is like trying to improve the position of a painting hung too high on the living room wall by jacking up the ceiling instead of moving the painting.”
Yet the Auckland Council, like their counterparts throughout the affluent world, seems determined to raise the ceilings – with no regard for costs.
One of the arguments used against building more roads – and especially against more motorways – is that as soon as they are built they become congested again because of “induced demand.” Such “induced demand” is surely the natural expression of suppressed demand. It seems unlikely that motorists will mindlessly drive between different destinations for no other reason than they can.
However, let us accept for a moment that “induced demand” is real, and suggests that improving the road network is a fruitless exercise. Advocates of expensive rail networks claim they will reduce congestion on the roads and improve the lot of private vehicle users as a consequence.
But surely, if the construction of an expensive rail network does reduce congestion on the roads then induced demand will rapidly restore the status quo. Maybe the theory is sound after all. It would explain why no retrofitted rail networks have anywhere resulted in reduced congestion.
This is the time to invest in an enhanced roading network while making incremental investments in flexible public transport. Roads can be shared by buses, trucks, vans, cars, taxis, shuttle-buses, motor-cycles and cyclists – unless compulsive regulators say they are for buses only. Railway lines can be used only by trains and if we build them in the wrong place they soon run empty. The Romans built roads and we still use them.
In a techno-novel published in 1992, Michael Crichton pauses in his narrative to explain what an email is. That’s not long ago.
The one certainty is that the internet/computer world will have the same impact on transport as it has already had on communications. Transport deals with bits while communication deals with bytes.
The end result will be a similar blurring of the line between public and private transport that has already happened between public and private communication. The outcomes are beyond our imagination.
We should get used to it, and realise that making cities more expensive and harder to get around in does not make them more liveable.
Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.
Photo by Mark Derricutt