By Alana Mandrick, Gaia Intern
UCSC professor and researcher Adam Millard-Ball talks transportation and travel trends, and the significance that these trends hold for climate change mitigation.
The American way of travel has a lot to do with how we live our lives and how we impact the Earth. When I took the course ENVS 25, Environmental Policy and Economy, with Professor Adam Millard-Ball, I was exposed to the topic of transportation systems and means of travel in various parts of the world, and learned about their tremendous influence and implications regarding climate change.
Taking the opportunity to delve a little deeper into this issue, I interviewed my former professor about his research on transportation policy and travel demand. Adam spoke to me about the concept of peak travel, the evolution of American transportation, the potential we have to achieve maximum transportation efficiency, and what this suggests about future climate change.
“The default assumption is that people always want to travel more — there is no limit in our desire to go places,” an idea that Adam Millard-Ball began to investigate during his graduate career. If this assumption is true, it holds a lot of policy implications — infrastructure, such as trains, roads, bike facilities, and more would have to endlessly be built to satisfy the demand.
However, at the turn of the 21st century, many industrialized countries have come to experience a “flattening out” or a “peak” in travel demand. As Adam explains, “peak travel is the idea that we’re seeing this peak in the amount that people travel — not just by driving, by all modes — in pretty much every industrialized country.”
This “implies there’s a limit in how much time people want to spend traveling.” If we’re not traveling any faster or better, then we’re not going to be able to travel more. Adam feels fairly confident that this is a permanent trend, because it’s been seen in many different contexts in different countries, including Japan, parts of Europe, and the U.S. “The trends all point towards a fairly stable, or perhaps declining, level of travel, at least by land.”
Adam indicates that this “has enormous implications for how we plan cities, how we plan transportation systems, and also for climate change.” It’s possible that it won’t be as difficult as we previously thought to achieve lower emissions in transportation — the hope is that through taking the correct initiatives, dramatic changes could be made.
The goal with transportation is to be efficient and sustainable to mitigate climate change, and the question is whether or not progress is being made towards that goal. Therefore, a fairly stable or declining level of travel is a promising trend. Adam explains that America’s transportation system is becoming much more efficient in the sense that we are burning fewer gallons per miles we drive, because of technological advancements driven by state and federal regulations.
However, “in terms of shifting into different modes [of transportation], that’s less clear.” It’s not that we are more often finding substitutes for driving, but that we are overall traveling less.
“To achieve greater efficiency, we just have to give people the right signals to make the more efficient choices.”
From a transportation policy perspective, this means that it would be important to “stop subsidizing the external costs of driving. If gasoline is too cheap, it’s difficult to force people to make other choices and … the fundamental pricing isn’t there for people to drive less.” It’s harder for people to limit the amount that they drive because it is the most convenient mode of transportation. However, state and federal policies hold the power to change this reality.
“Land-use policy is also a fundamental driver of transportation.” Because of strict rules and regulations, it’s harder to create urban centers—which are actually great from an environmental perspective. When everything is in such close proximity in an urban city, there is much less of a need to travel far distances, especially via cars.
The main problem we face is that “a lot of people either write off — or don’t think about — transportation when it comes to climate change.” Many people seek out technological advances, such as hybrid cars and solar panels, to mitigate environmental impact. That’s not to say that these things are unimportant, because they most certainly are momentous ways of mitigating climate change. However, we must also think of the ways in which we’re subconsciously subsidizing and supporting car-based travel. Too much car travel is a serious issue to keep in mind. There’s a disconnect in thinking about our modes of travel and our impact on the environment.
So, what actions can be taken that will allow us to connect and address these issues? There’s always something that can be done on an individual basis, such as driving less, and walking and biking more when possible.
Additionally, Adam stresses that everyone has the power to express their views through the ballot box. Adam advocates for voting as a powerful way to bring about change, from local to state to federal levels. If we don’t voice the views that we want to be heard, how can we expect policies to change for the better?
The way in which we travel has undoubtedly undergone transformations throughout the years. The good news is that industrialized countries are mitigating their contributions to climate change through travel emissions. Yet, there is a lot of progress to be made in terms of policy. We must remind ourselves that our transportation system and an altering climate are directly related, and that the choices we make today will hold an even greater impact tomorrow.