Transport Futures

By Robert Hickson 07/12/2014

Thirty billion, 60 billion, one billion, 10 billion. Those are some of the numbers from the Ministry of Transport’s recent Future Demand project.

  • 30 billion kilometres travelled a year on New Zealand roads (excluding trucks) – that’s 100 round trips to the sun.
  •  $60 billion is the cost of the road network (that’s about four times the total health budget in 2014) , which requires about $1 billion annually in maintenance.
  • $10 billion additional funding may go into the transport network over the next decade.

It’s a good study. They start out noting that in the past decade travel demand has fallen relative to earlier times, and the speculate whether we are seeing “peak car”.  Since 2005 projections of vehicle kilometers travelled have significantly overestimated the actual amount, so old models aren’t likely to be much use in helping to direct how future transport investments should be made.

In Future Demand rather than predict they examine two key uncertainties that will influence peoples transport decisions up to 2042 – the relative costs of energy and people’s preference for going somewhere in person, or doing it virtually (such as meeting someone, buying something, or attending an event).

This throws how the transport agencies look at transport into a U-turn. Now it’s about what do people want to access not about just jumping into cars.

A lot of workshops and research has gone into the project, and there is a lot of info available on the MoT website. This robustness is required, not only to convince the (perhaps) skeptical transport engineers and planners (or at least get them more comfortable with uncertainty), but also because the amount of money involved demands it.

They are also going to be releasing a model for others to play with in the future. This will probably be a big help for the councils, and others, who can play in their own local data and assumptions.

Wilkinson & Kupers noted that the famed Shell scenarios also had to include numbers so that engineers wouldn’t dismiss out of hand what you were talking about. But the numbers and models aren’t the whole story. They just help with providing a common set of numbers and engaging some key groups.  Wilkinson and Kupers note:

Quantification is essential to scenarios. The challenge lies in realizing how, when, and why models linked with them can hide assumptions and constrain thinking rather than refine it.

The Ministry of Transport study doesn’t provide answers to how to invest in the transport network, but it is a great approach to get people thinking more critically about what options we need to consider.

Another transport-related futures report that is influencing me at the moment is Re-programming Mobility, out of New York University. Rather than a quantitative approach, they have created some very stimulating scenarios for how technological innovations will affect transport in 2030. These are strong imaginative narratives, based on four futures archetypes [Pdf] developed by the University of Hawaii.

I’ve taken this archetype approach for an opinion piece on the future of science in New Zealand in 2030 that I have just submitted to the Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand.