Life After Peak Travel

One of the hallmarks of the 20th century was the increasing availability and decreasing cost of travel. People could get more places more easily, and so they did. Each year people drove more. Now, there's a new study in Miller-McCune that purports to show that that trend has stopped in eight industrialized nations.

A study of eight industrialized countries, including the United States, shows that seemingly inexorable trends -- ever more people, more cars and more driving -- came to a halt in the early years of the 21st century, well before the recent escalation in fuel prices.

It could be a sign, researchers said, that the demand for travel and the demand for car ownership in those countries has reached a saturation point...

The peak travel study runs counter to government models predicting steady growth in travel demand well beyond 2030. Schipper and Millard-Ball say that their own findings are "suggestive rather than conclusive." They speculate that highway gridlock, parking problems, high prices at the gas pump and an aging population that doesn't commute may be contributing to peak travel. People already spend an average 1.1 hours per day traveling from one place to another, and driving speeds can't get much faster.

This highlights two interesting things for me.

One, most experts find it exceedingly difficult to predict when a long-running trend will stop or reverse. It was true of the electric utility forecasts in the 1970s and media company models in the 1990s. Real change, though we know it happens, rarely allows itself to be extrapolated out by Excel based on past data.

Two, a friend of mine once pointed out that the easier it was to travel somewhere, the less exciting that place became. He called this principle "the conservation of distance to the exotic." This idea always made me a bit sad. What conservatism! Technology couldn't really change anything, it implied. But maybe in a world where we can no longer inject massive amounts of fossil fuels into our lives, the principle becomes a reason for optimism. Your kids may drive less than you have. They may see less of the total globe than you did. But that doesn't mean they'll lead less meaningful lives. At least I hope not.

Update: This post originally misnamed my friend's principle as "the preservation of distance to the exotic."

Via Marginal Revolution.

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