New Zealanders are driving nearly 30 billion kilometres each year in their cars, vans, utes and SUVs. The road network also carries 70 percent of all of our freight. As a nation we have built and continue to maintain a network of roads to allow us to make these trips.
The road network is worth more than $60 billion and costs more than $1 billion a year to maintain. We are planning to invest $10 billion over the next ten years to change the shape of the network to improve its quality and capacity.
This would be relatively straightforward if we knew how demand would change. The challenge we face, however, is there have recently been changes to the patterns of demand for personal travel.
From 1980 to 2004 we saw an annual increase in demand in the order of three percent per year. This highlighted the importance of tackling congestion and improving safety and gave us assurance revenue would grow to cover the costs of a growing network. From 2005 to 2013 total demand only grew by 0.25 percent per year.
We now face an uncertain future. We cannot be certain demand will return to pre-2005 levels of growth nor can we be certain it will remain flat. This means we can no longer rely on traditional forecasting models alone to help us to decide how to invest.
The aim of this project was to explore the uncertainty around demand for personal travel, car travel in particular, which represents 77 percent of the total kilometres travelled on our roads. We did this by developing four future scenarios which explored the possible impact on travel of our use of digital technology and also the impact of energy costs on future travel demand.
The goal was not to create predictions of the future; nor was it to create a view on what our preferences were for the future transport system. Our goal was to produce a range of plausible futures. This would allow us to improve the likelihood the investment decisions we make today will be right for the future.
The conclusions of our work were:
1. When we think about creating a thriving New Zealand we should recognise we are trying to improve access not just mobility. This can be achieved in three different ways: with good transport systems, with good spatial planning, or by improving digital access. We need to integrate our thinking across these three areas to achieve the optimal outcome.
2. To reduce the uncertainty we face we should seek to better understand the factors affecting the changing patterns of demand and refresh our demand models accordingly. We should look both at social trends and also speed in development, take-up and impact of new technologies.
3. To ensure resilience of the access system we develop for New Zealand we should seek to build in flexibility where we can. This will allow us to respond more quickly to changing patterns of demand and reduce the likelihood we will make investments which will become unnecessary.
4. We need to recognise the investment decisions we make will shape patterns of demand and not just respond to them. We should move away from the approach of seeking to simply predict future demand and then provide for it. We should instead debate the sort of access we want and decide how to invest to support the future.