The Future: Not What It Used to Be

By Ryan McGreal
Published January 24, 2005

Many people assume that transport progress is linear, with newer, faster modes replacing older, slower modes. They consider older modes unimportant, so for example, there is no harm if growing automobile traffic slows public transit service or degrades walking conditions. From that perspective it is backward to give transit or nonmotorized modes priority. But progress actually tends to follow a parallel model, with many modes being important simultaneously.

Advocates of transportation choice often seek to change public attitudes and government policies toward transportation infrastructure. The Victoria Transport Policy Institute has approached the issue from a different angle, describing needs rather than prescribing them in its new report, The Future Isn't What It Used To Be.

The report argues that "future transport demand will be increasingly diverse", and planners should "reflect these shifts by increasing support for alternative modes." (The report focuses mainly on the United States.)

Put simply, automotive transport has run its course. The industry is mature and overcapitalized, the infrastructure is already built, opportunities for economies of scale have dried up, and the structural problems of automation are overtaking the benefits.

Warning that "transport planning decisions can be self-fulfilling", the report recommends that planners should take population and market trends into full consideration before proceeding with new transport infrastructure, noting that public transit ridership, walking, and cycling use all increase significantly when they are made available. This indicates latent demand that is suppressed when driving is the only choice.

The study compares industrial countries according to the breakdown of transportation by mode (Car, Transit, Cycling, Walking, and Other). 40-60 percent of trips are made by car in most countries, compared to ~75 percent in Canada and ~80 percent in the US.

However, this trend is changing. Per capita vehicle ownership is declining while bus and rail transit routes are increasing, reflecting new investment in these transit modes. The report notes further that this took place during a period of "a growing economy and declining real fuel costs, factors that should favor driving over transit."

I must admit: I would have liked to see more analysis of the ratio of transit spending to ridership. A city might double its transit spending but increase ridership by only ten percent, or conversely increase spending by ten percent but double ridership. Unfortunately, the report doesn't delve into this level of detail.

Population trends (slowing, aging, urbanizing) and economic trends (communications are getting cheaper and more effective; energy costs are increasing) point toward further declines in both the growth of automobile use and the returns on automotive investments.

The report draws a distinction between growth and development, arguing that the former simply entails an increase in quantity whereas the latter entails an increase in quality, efficiency, and ease of use. Development makes the most sense where resources are limited.

The report concludes:

[I]f we start developing a new suburban highway now, it will be completed about the time that most Baby Boomers retire, fuel prices rise significantly, and consumers increasingly value walkable neighborhoods. It may be better to anticipate these trends by investing resources in alternative modes and creating less automobile-dependent communities.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide if this has any significance for Hamilton...

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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