Why we should worry about travel demand

Today marks the launch of a new Commission on Travel Demand which I am chairing. This is the first in a series of blog posts where I will explore the thinking behind the Commission and share insights from events, evidence and public meetings the Commission hosts during 2017.

I start by looking at why we should be interested in travel demand. There are certainly greater short run policy priorities out there such as job creation and promoting productivity and competitiveness in a post-Brexit world. In fact, talking about demand can be politically quite challenging as the idea of limiting growth in demand or managing demand in particular places or times of day can be contentious.

However, I would argue that we are in a period of significant change and uncertainty where there are numerous opportunities to shape the course of the future growth in travel demand. Many of these influences will also come from outside the transport sector. Some pathways will be more mobility intensive than others and that matters to the amount we will need to spend on infrastructure expansion and the extent to which we can meet our future environmental obligations.

Starting with environmental obligations reminds us that we may need to pick less mobility intensive pathways in order to meet our carbon obligations. The UK Committee on Climate Change in its 2016 annual report to Parliament noted that whilst the UK as a whole has achieved CO2 emissions reductions of 38% on 1990 levels this has almost entirely been achieved through the power sector. If it is to remain on track for the fourth and fifth carbon budget periods to 2032 it requires major action in other sectors.


As the figures show, transport has shown comparatively little overall reduction and there is a very significant gap between what the Committee on Climate Change believes is a cost-effective reduction pathway and the set of transport policies we have in place today.


Whilst new technologies such as electrification of vehicles and increased biofuels offer reductions in emissions, the scale and pace of the transition from where we are today to an entirely technology-led solution seems unrealistic. In transport terms therefore this could mean travelling less far or less often, more by non-motorised transport and by more shared forms of mobility. To do this though, whilst maintaining social and economic progress, requires thinking well beyond just the transport system but to how participation in society is changing. This will help to understand where transport interventions could shape those futures in less rather than more carbon intensive ways.

In the next article in this blog series I will be reporting on insights from the US Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington which begins on Sunday 8th January. I’ll be talking at TRB on what different demand futures mean for infrastructure planning and maintenance and on what the changing employment market might mean for youth mobility. There will also be lots of debate about shared mobility and increasingly autonomous futures.

If you are interested in what you have read here and would like to contribute to the work of the Commission then please submit to the call for evidence which is open until mid February.

Professor Greg Marsden


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