Life After Peak Travel

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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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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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