2050 Road Traffic Forecasts: Starker Choices

The recent publication of the Department for Transport’s National Road Traffic Forecasts to 2050 throws up some major challenges to the field of transport planning. Whilst this is a set of forecasts for England and Wales it provides a set of questions that go well beyond that scale. Some initial reflections, drawing on the work of the Commission on Travel Demand are set out below, although there will no doubt be more to debate.

Greater Transparency

The first point to make is that it is only possible to have a debate about the strength, purpose and future of road traffic forecasting because of the high level of transparency which the Department for Transport has brought to this. This practice is a further development of the 2015 report and includes much greater reflection on the performance of previous forecasts, variations across areas and road types.  For example, the report notes that three of the scenarios from the 2015 forecasts consistently overpredicted road traffic levels between 2010 and 2017 as shown below.


More generally, it is worth observing that none of the sets of assumptions appeared to track the outturn particularly well.

There is also a high degree of transparency as to what has been done to change the model, where to find more details of this, what the assumptions in each of the scenarios tested in RTF2018 are and how they work in different regions. This includes a broader array of tests than those in RTF2015, most notably high and low migration scenarios, a scenario which includes 100% ZEV sales by 2040 and another scenario which includes a continuation of the decline in trip rates.

Starker Choices

The purpose of RTF is clearly stated as not to be indicative of desirable futures or likely futures. It is here then that the range of outcomes from RTF2018 defines the debates that should be at the forefront of transport policy today. For me these include:

  • How are any scenarios being run which are not consistent with our Climate Change Obligations? Only one scenario has decarbonisation of the car fleet by 2050 with a reduction in CO2 of 76%. However, the other six have just 25% of miles travelled by ZEVs by 2050. This is not even as ambitious as the goals set out in Road to Zero. The smallest reduction implied by these scenarios is a 17% reduction in CO2 which simply cannot sit alongside the reduction pathways the CCC has set out. As such, they should not, in my view, be being conisdered as part of a meaningful future scenario set.
  • Do we want to allow motoring costs to decline and how should we manage the transition to electric vehicles? In the absence of any other assumption on changing electricity prices, the scenario with decarbonisation of the fleet has the largest increases in road traffic by 2050 – 51% – a massive 16% higher than the reference case. If this is not remedied then, looking at the other metrics on congestion and journey times (increases of 75% in lost time), the pressure would be for a major roads programme to reduce these impacts. This would amount to massive infrastructure investment and associated environmental damage in order to compensate for additional demand which results from the reduced cost of driving. Where would the tax take come from in order to fund this kind of programme given that fuel duty would largely disappear from general taxation? This has been much trailled as an issue – but if RTF is to inform policy, rather than just roads investment decisions, then it is difficult to see how this can be ignored.
  • Should we create lower demand futures? One of the intriguing quotes in the report is “research was unable to provide an explanation for the reduction in average trip rates over time leading to significant uncertainty about future trajectories”. One scenario runs with the assumption that the past two decades worth of trip reductions continue. The other six presume they stop. That seems like an unfairly stacked assumption (stabilisation deemed more likely or at least of greater interest to decision-makers) with no middle ground. However, the scenario with declining trip rates shows up some very important results. Only 8% of traffic in congested conditions compared with 7% today (and 16% in the highest growth scenario!). The Commission on Travel Demand was unequivocal in stating the need to understand the change in trip rates around which so many other assumptions hang. Is it possible to develop policies that support a decline in trip rates and deliver greater well-being? Given the difference the answer to this question makes to perceptions of future investment need it is now a priority to address.

Whilst it is not the place of RTF2018 to set out the policy response, it seems necessary for bodies like the Transport Select Committee to make sure that this follow through does happen.


Longer term relevance

If, as is contested in the Future of Mobility grand challenge, we can anticipate a radical reshaping of our transport networks then the very structure of the relationships between income, technology, activities and mobility will themselves be quite different. What then for the insights from RTF? The report states that RTF continues to produce “reliable and robust forecasts provided the most up to date evidence is used, the model is calibrated to a recent year and government QA procedures are followed”. It seems to me, more than ever, that whilst a well calibrated and up to date baseline is a good thing, the pursuit of accuracy in the short run does not help with dealing with uncertainty in the long run.

The RTF2018 makes an initial attempt to review the potential impacts of CAVs on the future travel demands on our network. It is systematic in setting out the many assumptions that need to be made and draws on the scant evidence that is available to do so. The answers, with all their health warnings, are in line with preliminary findings from elsewhere (which could be group think!) – CAVs could see traffic grow from between 5% and 55% depending on the amount of sharing that occurs. However, the policy framework matters to where we might end up here, just as it does for the pricing of transport with ZEVs.

At the end of this, we remain faced with a huge range of relevant uncertainty – from CAVs, from ZEVs and from disruptive mobility models as well as broader social change which we have only partial insights on. If we are serious about making decisions with a 2050 time frame in mind then we cannot take these changes as exogenous in the same way we might with GDP or population. The future has to be shaped and we require different policy frameworks and options to be set out so that there can be proper debate about what are looking like increasingly starker choices between future demand pathways.


Why better choices are bad for transport policy

Better buses, a new tram network, segregated cycle lanes and improved pedestrian areas. I am a big fan of all of those options as part of the mix to allow cities to move people around in ways which work for the economy and the environment. I must therefore be in favour of improving travel choices right?
Of course, the idea of providing better travel conditions for people to travel has to be a good thing. However, that’s pretty much where I go cold on the idea of transport policy being about ‘better choices’. Choice is largely associated with enabling individuals to “do the right thing”. It is here that the logic breaks down in ways which go on to backfire on policy.

In the Commission on Travel Demand report, we looked at evidence on the travel of younger people from Kiron Chatterjee and Noreen McDonald. It shows a very significant reduction in miles travelled by car by 18-30 year olds over the past two decades. The reasons for this include delayed parenting, staying in education longer, rising costs of insurance, increased urbanisation, changing employment patterns, increased use of social media and ICT. They conclude that “it is not possible to quantify the importance of each of these factors or to say the order in which they began to exert an influence. They should be treated as interconnected phenomena”. So where does choice feature in this? These are largely structural changes so the extent to which choice explains change is really quite limited.

Work by Scott Le Vine and colleagues also looked at changing commute patterns and found that we make 20% fewer commute trips in the UK than back in the mid 1990s. This is again down to a complex mix of changing employment structures, increased female participation in the workplace, more people working for themselves, more people working from multiple places and some increase in home working. These changes not ascribable to individual choice so even though individuals make a choice about their travel this again does not equate to choice explaining what they do.

So, the problem comes when the vast majority of changes in travel behaviour are for ‘non transport reasons’ and not because of travel preferences and ‘better choices’. When you then try to play back the “sustainable choice” agenda to people there is therefore a very mixed reaction. “I didn’t choose for house prices to be beyond my reach”, “I didn’t choose to be put on a four day week” “I didn’t choose for the nearest healthcare facility to close”. There is also an important strand of work which recognises that some people are driving even though they cannot afford to do so given other indicators of material deprivation. Driving is not so much a choice here but a necessity to overcome job insecurity and lack of security of housing tenure.
So, where does this leave us in terms of policy goals? My instinctive reaction is to suggest that we should be focussed on outcomes and so should be delivering better neighbourhoods, healthier citizens and more productive cities. This will mean privileging some modes over others – i.e. promoting some choices whilst reducing others (another reason why choice falls down as an argument!), some user groups over others, some areas over others and some technologies over others. It makes us have to argue what we are doing things for rather than hiding behind a notion that we can carry on with ever wider choices in a world without trade-offs. I think choice has been a convenient fig leaf which has been used to cover up repeated failings to tackle the major externalities of transport of the past decades. Perhaps its time to choose a different path?

A trillion reasons to think about how much we travel

Today marks the launch of the first report of the Commission on Travel Demand, All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning. It marks the culmination of 18 months of evidence gathering and debate with contributions from industry, government, NGOs and academia.

This is not a report about flying taxis or futuristic promises of systems that can get people to further flung places faster. It is a report grounded in the realities of today and it challenges some of the taken-for-granted narratives which define the transport system.

First, in the UK, per capita there has been a decline in how often and how far we travel for the past two and a bit decades. Even though, for example, we have had population growth and employment has never been higher fewer commute trips are made now than in the late 1980s. Shopping trips have declined 30% and, whilst some of this is due to the shift to on-line (now 17% of retail sales) the decline predates the on-line shopping era.

This must be wrong of course, the dip in traffic in the late 2000s was just the recession and we have seen growth in the last year right? You have to lift the bonnet a bit further to understand why rather than slowing or flattening, travel demand has not been further in decline. First, the decline in distances travelled per person has happened in every part of the country (see image below and analysis). Yes it is more marked in our cities where more people are living and where the options to not drive are better but these changes are everywhere. Second, they are most pronounced in under 30s but also in the 30 to 60 age band. The ONLY age range in which mileage per capita is growing is in the over 60s. This was anticipated, as the baby boomer generation reach retirement and retire with a lifetime of driving behind them, replacing a generation that was far less car dependent. What was not expected was the wave of reductions in the travel of younger people following on behind.


Whilst the traditional factors used to explain growth in travel such as income and fuel remain important, they are becoming less so. The activities we travel to access are themselves changing as are a range of other social trends which mean that the necessity and meaning of travel is also on the move. Work by Kiron Chatterjee and colleagues shows that for younger people a whole set of factors are changing which contribute to the reduction in travel such as living at home longer, more people staying in education for longer, delaying parenting (see their report). Scott le Vine and colleagues describe how work is changing with fewer people with one fixed place of work, more people working from home and fewer commuting five days a week (see image below and their report). The changes are not transport changes so we cannot hope to just find the explanations by looking in the same places we used to when the growth in car ownership was one of THE big social changes.


So, does any of this matter? It matters for a whole host of reasons – whether that is the need to meet carbon targets, improve air quality, the need to invest in the right sorts of projects or the need to address the chronic lack of exercise in the population. How we travel and how much we travel really does matter even though governments typically find it difficult to talk about. This is not a debate at the margins though. In 2015 the Department for Transport produced a set of road traffic forecasts in which the assessed what would happen if the recent trends for reducing how often we travel continue or stopped. The answer was, by 2040 a difference of 70 billion vehicle miles per year or, over the period up to 2040 a cumulative difference of over 1 trillion vehicle miles.


Let’s imagine that either of those futures is possible. What would need to be done to bring them about? What would our towns and cities look and feel like with such radically different levels of growth? How different would our investment priorities be? These would be the sorts of questions I would like to see being asked and which I will return to in my next blog. In the meantime, I hope this gives you a trillion reasons to think again about how much we travel and challenges at least one pre-conceived idea you held about travel trends.

Professor Greg Marsden is Chair of the Commission on Travel Demand and holds a chair in Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds.

All Change? The future of travel demand and the implications for policy and planning is available to download at www.demand.ac.uk/commission-on-travel-demand where you will also find all of the evidence.

How can urban transportation improvements in India be accelerated?

In this blog we introduce a new two-year research project, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the Indian Council of Social Science Research. The project is an interdisciplinary collaboration between Greg Marsden (ITS University of Leeds), Louise Reardon (INLOGOV, Birmingham), Sanjay Gupta (SPA, Delhi), Ashish Verma (IISc, Bangalore) and the World Resources Institute and will examine the urban mobility implications of India’s on-going Smart Cities Mission.

The negative outcomes of India’s current urban transport systems are a cause for concern. The World Health Organisation has identified India as home to 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, while also experiencing 150,000 road traffic deaths per year (some six times higher per head of population than the UK). There are also major social inequities that directly or indirectly arise from the uneven allocation of transport resources in India’s urban areas. To date, the emphasis in Indian cities has been on expanding mobility through new, large transport infrastructure projects. These projects benefit high income people most but do little to address the existing inequities in delivery of transport services where there has been a decline in the overall coverage of public transport and a rise in private motorised transport. Redesigning urban governance, including transport governance, has therefore been identified as a critical element of progress in delivering more inclusive and sustainable cities in India.


Congestion and Pollution in Delhi (source: NOMAD)

Previous research has identified that limited powers, resources and capacity at a local level have contributed to a failure to plan adequately for the exponential growth in vehicular traffic, and to service new formal and informal migrant communities in rapidly growing Indian cities. The need for improvements to transport service quality, innovation and easier access to the financing necessary for such improvements has increased the importance of industry and other private sector actors as key agents of change alongside the state. These processes bring with them new challenges around how best to manage the balance of responsibility and resources between national, regional and local government levels. Moreover, how best to govern through an increasingly complex set of actors and how to effectively steer the competing interests of different stakeholders.

in 2015 the Indian national government sought to address these governance challenges launching the Smart Cities Mission; a competition for funding for 100 cities in India for the period to 2019/20. In the government’s own words, the initiative is ‘bold’, aiming to go beyond what has been achieved before at the local level. The focus of the initiative is on promoting cities that provide core infrastructure, a good quality of life and a clean and sustainable environment, through the application of ‘Smart’ Solutions. Urban mobility is one aspect of the Smart Cities Mission (alongside water supply, electricity supply, sanitation, affordable housing, safety and security and health and education). In relation to transport specifically, Smart Cities aim to promote a variety of transport options including Transit Orientated Development, public transport, last mile para-transport connectivity and ‘walkable localities’. There is certainly a broad range of options from what might be seen as basic essentials to ‘smart’ and the tone set by the branding of the initiative is itself an interesting question.

Whilst the interpretation of what policy mix might achieve these features and at what scale (pan-city, new development, retrofit or redevelopment) is to be decided on by each City, the implementation of the Smart Cities Mission at the City level must be done by an organisational arrangement called a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created for the purpose. The SPV will ‘plan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate the Smart City development projects’. Within this context then, the Smart Cities Mission provides a major opportunity to understand the aims and processes of governance reform and contribute knowledge on the extent to which these reforms impact transport governance and in turn are capable of achieving a significant improvement in the mobility system to promote more sustainable and inclusive development.

The project will undertake a comparative analysis of four case study sites: Bangalore, Jaipur, Ranchi and Bhubaneshwar, each of which have their own history or previous urban transport governance reform. The project, will trace the impacts of transport governance reforms through to the impacts on the economic prosperity and quality of life of citizens both through changing processes and outcomes. It will also critically develop the multi-level governance framework approach in an Indian context, particularly understanding the evolving role of Special Purpose Vehicles in urban reforms. The project has a strong emphasis on engagement with practitioners and academics from across India and the UK and we would be pleased to hear from anyone who has an interest in these themes and in making a difference to urban transport reform in India.

Interested in what you have read here? We have a two-year post doctoral position available based at the University of Leeds to conduct the primary research (see here for details). There will also be shorter posts available in Delhi and Bangalore.

Greg Marsden & Louise Reardon

See here for further details on related ESRC-ICSSR projects and here for other ESRC projects relating to Urban Transformations.

Image Source: NOMAD [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

More bad news from the high street – but where next?

Today’s press release from the British Retail Consortium showed a 6% year on year fall in footfall for March. It is not just the lousy weather we had in March, although it was so wet that even duck footfall fell, this is part of a longer term reduction in people accessing town centres (around 1.4% per year). As the Figure below shows using data from the National Travel Survey, the frequency of shopping trips and overall distance travelled to shops has declined for two decades.


The Decline in Shopping Trips and Distances

The normalisation of on-line shopping is obviously one factor here. On-line shopping is growing at around 10-12% per year and now represents almost 17% of total UK retail sales. The rise in on-line has coincided with a 30% decrease in physical shopping trips over the past decade and a 16% decline in distance travelled. In recent work undertaken as part of the DEMAND Centre, we found that many goods have become predominantly on-line purchases or are heading that way as shown below.


Purchasing Patterns for Different Goods


Importantly, the decline in shopping trips is just one of many categories of trips which have been declining over the past twenty years (pre-dating mass internet shopping). We have been so fascinated in the transport sector in explaining travel growth as the economy has grown that we have overlooked the fact that when the underlying conditions in society shift then travel might reduce. On 3rd May the Commission on Travel Demand will be launching its report “All Change? The Future of travel demand and the implications for policy and practice”. It will explore further why these trends have happened and how we might understand them so that we can look forward and plan for travel futures differently (or indeed plan for different travel futures).

The report will debate policy futures. The question which high streets face is why are people going to go there? Increasingly it has to be because they are nice places to be and they are places where a mix of activities can be undertaken in a clean and vibrant environment. So, transport planners, if we need to create great places then how do we value place? It seems that some of the logics which brought us to where we are today might need to be rethought very quickly if we are going to put form over function and ensure a good balance of activities remains in out cities. That may require upsetting some applecarts which have been cemented in place. The Commission report we hope will spark that debate. If you want to be part of it then please sign up to the event now!

Greg Marsden is the Chair of the Commission on Travel Demand

Why is a transport demand policy so difficult when it is so important?

In the next week the Commission on Travel Demand will have its final evidence session on ‘decision-making’. In advance of that and my talk at the Landor Local Transport Summit I wanted to share some thoughts about why demand policy seems to have slipped off the transport agenda. This seems particularly troubling given the really limited progress which seems to be being made on climate change emission reduction and air quality.


Nothing about this image screams “lets not worry about travel demand”. The 2015 National Road Traffic Forecasts showed an increase of between 19% and 55%. The CCC works on a central or most likely projection from the Department. Looking at the NRTF this would be the scenario with growth of 34%. On these grounds alone, demand matters. For every % over the core scenario the significance of the amber and red areas in the CCC graph is magnified and for ever unit under it is reduced.

However, we do not have a clear policy on travel demand. This, I believe, stems in part from the economic traditions underpinning transport analysis. Here, demand is a measure of consumer preferences in transactions with more demand general seen to be a good thing (subject to the caveats of well performing markets and full externalities being paid which we seem happy to hold out as a possibility. Sometime).

Demand is also rather curiously, yet rather importantly, held to be somehow ‘out there’ and independent of policy. By this, I mean that our approach to looking at demand in the future tends to try and hold policy constant and ask what impact important exogenous variables could have such as oil price, GDP and population. Only then do we look at the extent to which this demand might be accommodated or not. This is worldview one or the “two moons” part of the figure below.


Three worldviews of demand and policy

This might be an overly tough critique of the way of things today. It could be argued that in oil price sensitivities there are assumptions of pricing policy from government and it is also the case that some policies are seen to be able to impact on demand – such as the Committee on Climate Change’s assumption that behaviour change could reduce travel demand by 5%. This corresponds to worldview 2 or the very partially overlapping moons.

However, is that all that matters? If we look again at the NRTF, the highest growth scenario identified could only meaningfully be brought about if the growth in demand were supported by the same kind of infrastructure or supporting policies that were in place in the last period where such growth was seen back in the 1980s and early 1990s.


Similarly, Scenario 3 assumes a continued reduction in trip rates. Not all of this has been the result of transport policy for sure. However, it is easier to imagine this scenario unfolding in a policy setting where much greater attention was given to localisation, virtual communication and trip chaining through densification of activities than it is in a world where the focus is on very significant investment in major inter-urban infrastructure.

Demand has to be more strongly shaped by policy than is currently considered or allowed to be seen to be. That is part of the explanation as to why different countries have different levels of per capita travel. It is perhaps convenient, more than realistic to hold the position that demand futures are somehow independent of policy futures (see Foresight in Action for a great short read on this).  It means you may not need a policy on demand reduction because it is not something you have agency over. This fallacy can be picked apart by looking ahead. There are clearly policy choices to be made about how we welcome autonomous vehicles to our roads, how we regulate mobility service providers such as Uber and Lyft and what kind of a service Mobility as a Service can become. It is not all determined by policy – but it is not free from policy.  It also will not be allowed to unfold the same way in every city or country. That will clearly affect the services provided, how they are used and what they get used for – i.e. demand. This is the third world view of more highly overlapped circles in the diagram. This recognises the inter-relationship between demand and policy. As the framework conditions of policy shape the demand that develops so too does policy respond to the levels of demand which emerge. This can work to drive up or bring down demand.

I started out by suggesting that it is imperative that we act to reduce demand if we are to meet our climate objectives. To end on a positive note, IF we accept that policy matters to shaping demand then we can plan by asking questions that start with “What kind of a future do we want to create?” rather than starting with “What kinds of demand do we need to accomodate?”. I’m looking forward to hearing more about what needs to be done to change rather than reinforce the current pathway.


Is regional spending on transport fair and what needs to change?

Having just spent the best part of two hours schlepping in and out of York through race day traffic for a 2 minute radio interview on transport spending in the North I thought I’d share the thoughts I didn’t get time for.

First up, is the spend on transport in different parts of the UK fair? The chart below is taken from data summarised in the IPPR North’s assessment of the NIC and HM Treasury infrastructure pipeline for those projects that can be classified to a region.

Per Capita Spend on Transport Infrastructure from 2016/17


Arguments can be had about what is in and what is out. Revenue spend is not included, for example, which is also lower in the North. The picture is clear, however, and has been so over a long period. More money gets spent in London and on investments connected to London than for cities in the North.

Why does it happen and is it actually just the outcome of different needs in different places? Andy Burnham hits the nail on the head when he wrote in the Guardian about his time in the Treasury. The way transport projects are assessed are to look at the benefits of investment versus the costs. In general the benefits are greatest where congestion is highest, flows are highest and issues such as overcrowding and unreliability are worst. The reality is that these problems are, on average, worse in the more crowded South East than the North. On top of this, recent focus on identifying wider economic benefits such as agglomeration of knowledge industries are also likely to be stronger in and around London. So, whilst doing work in London and the South East can be much more costly due to the lack of space and need to work underground, the benefits are such that more investments come out on top from there than from the North.

There are other factors at play. Almost twenty years of Transport for London and the Mayor have led to a focused set of planning activities with a delivery body and financing regime to support that. Devolution in the North is still in its infancy. Whilst I am a big supporter of it there are major challenges to pan-regional action for an agency like Transport for the North. Investments in one part of the region relatively disadvantage another. It is a huge region and tensions exist. Whilst there is talk now of speaking with one voice, this will take time to be an effective voice.

However, my view is that we have a Henry Ford problem. He is attributed as saying “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got”. It will matter much less what the leaders of the North ask for if the process for deciding what makes for good value for money remains as it is in Whitehall.

Does it matter? It matters for the quality of transport service people experience. The journey times between Leeds and Manchester by rail are about 50 minutes for a 40 mile journey. You can get from central London to Peterborough (80 miles) in 45 minutes and Winchester (70 miles) in just over an hour. Our major cities of the North do not have good connectivity and there is little redundancy when either the M62 or the transpennine rail line goes wrong.

What options exist for change? There are different options each with benefits and disbenefits. One argument would be to hand a bigger chunk of resources to Transport for the North and let them decide how to spend it. If a funding settlement could be agreed then that would certainly place a responsibility for achieving best value out of that firmly with the Northern leaders. However, Transport for the North is not an elected body and so there would need to be some pretty heavy checks and balances in place to ensure that the spend did not just end up as pork barrel politics or there would need to be a shift to far greater direct accountability.

The problem could also be solved out of Whitehall. One option would be to have a national transport strategy. Yes, that’s right, a national transport strategy. Don’t get me wrong, they have not always been particularly effective but we have not had one since the coalition of 2010 (see forthcoming article with Jon Shaw, Iain Docherty and Jillian Anable – come on reviewers!). However, it seems clear that to address the infrastructure shortfall of the North requires a very deliberate policy around what constitutes good connectivity and journey quality between our major cities. This does not mean that everything we have in place today gets revisited. Projects to support growth will continue to remain important but if we leave it to the current process and keep the commitments vague then we may end up continuing to get what we always got. As an aside, a national transport strategy might also do some really important joining up of other major agendas such as road safety, total electrification of the car fleet and how we take a longer term view on resilience which is also subject to regional disparities.