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The recent flurry of reports, blogs and commentaries discussing the likelihood of an occurrence of the Peak Car effect in the UK has largely focused on the social implications of us falling out of love with our vehicles. But going forward the issue actually raises far more fundamental questions about the UK’s transport infrastructure.
Peak Car – the road less travelled
So just what is Peak Car? Well, it’s the hypothesis that the annual distance an average person travels by car has reached its peak, and may even be declining. What does that mean? Well, for starters, it raises some interesting questions about how much new road building (or widening) we actually need in the UK – a question that may become increasingly topical given the current coalition government’s apparent desire to consider some form of privatisation of the UK’s Strategic Road Network.
But perhaps more interestingly, given that this phenomenon appears to have started around the year 2000, it also suggests that the link between economic growth and travel has dramatically weakened (if not broken entirely). This is particularly important given the current view that we can dig our way out of the current recession by investing in infrastructure, including transport infrastructure.
Challenging the UK aviation debate
It also raises an interesting new dimension in the London Airport capacity debate. At present, the fundamental driver of the argument for additional airport capacity is the belief that economic growth and air travel growth are closely correlated. Well, that was what we thought 10 years ago about highways. Turns out that we were wrong…
Peak Car in the UK appears to have come about as a consequence of significant declines in business travel by car and in miles driven by young men and Londoners, although conversely, there has been an increase in miles driven by women. There is plenty of debate about what has caused this but here’s a hypothesis that those planning aviation capacity might wish to ponder: technology has changed the way we do business, requiring less travel for meetings or sales activities; young people are adopting more sustainable, urban lifestyles which include less motorised travel; and the UK’s ever growing service economy, led by London, doesn’t require much movement of people, just the flow of information.
If this is all true, what then are the implications for all transport, particularly aviation?
Predicting future needs
This is not just a UK phenomenon; it seems to be occurring in many of the developed economies. In countries such as the UK, with only relatively minor future population growth anticipated, combined with a demographic shift to a greying population, this probably means very little year on year traffic growth going forward. Perhaps, ultimately, the transport infrastructure challenge for the developed world in the 21st century won’t be accommodating growth, but rather managing decline…