Times reports that DfT could be sued about road traffic growth forecasts that are too high
Times reports that experts believe that car use will not rise sharply again and that investors may not see the returns the DfT forecasts suggest. Pension funds and other private infrastructure investors could sue the Department for Transport if their official forecasts for long-term traffic growth fail to materialise. This comes in a warning by Prof Phil Goodwin at the annual European Transport Conference in Glasgow. The Transport Planning Society — a panel of local government representatives, consultants and academics – is calling for an urgent review of the DfT’s forecasts because they are “now so far from reality”. Some academics believe we will get to “peak car”, where car use has plateaued at a lower level than previously anticipated. The DfT’s UK figures show that miles per driver peaked in the late 1990s, levelled off in the last decade, and fell in the recession. Could this happen for pension funds and investors in new runways or expanded airports?
from the Campaign for Better Transport. 21.11.2011
ROAD TRAFFIC volumes in England are likely to grow by almost 50% over the next 25 years, according to the DfT’s new National Road Traffic Forecasts (NRTF). The headline forecast is that road traffic will rise from 261.2bn vehicle miles in 20101 to 375.6bn in 2035. This 44% growth is a central estimate, between the low growth of 34% (to 349.8bn miles) and the high growth of 55% (to 405bn miles).
DfT ‘could be sued over growth forecasts’
Pension funds and other private infrastructure investors could sue the Department for Transport if official forecasts for long-term traffic growth fail to materialise, a former independent government adviser will say in a speech today.
The warning from Phil Goodwin at the annual European Transport Conference in Glasgow comes as the Transport Planning Society — a panel of local government representatives, consultants and academics — calls for an urgent review of the DfT’s forecasts because they are “now so far from reality”.
A growing body of academics are championing a theory called “peak car”, where car use has plateaued at a lower level than previously anticipated, and are questioning the DfT’s predictions that it will return to growth as sharply as projected once Britain emerges from recession.
The DfT’s UK figures show that miles per driver peaked in the late 1990s, levelled off in the last decade, and fell dramatically in the recession. Its latest forecasts predict 37 per cent more car traffic on the road in 2035 compared with 2010, and attribute the recent reduction to oil prices and the economic downturn.
Professor Goodwin, who has advised both Labour and Conservative governments, said that it looked “implausible” that car use would grow at such levels and suggested that it could even continue to fall, “depending on what policies are in operation”.
He said that Britain was in a “different epoch”, in which government forecasts were being called into question for the first time. “This would not have been an issue 25 years ago because most people would have quite happily agreed traffic growth is inevitable — that there isn’t a risk. It is much less easy [now] to maintain there’s no risk.”
This left the Government exposed, he said, to complicated negotiations with pension companies on who should bear the risk for future infrastructure projects. He added that it was difficult to find people outside government who would say that the forecasts were completely credible.Keith Buchan, the chairman of the Transport Planning Society, said that the figures for London traffic were so “severely” out that it raised questions about the rest of the country. At a conference in July, attended by transport officials, the audience laughed at the department’s London forecasts, he said. “They [the DfT] are talking about trying to review it”.
Mr Buchan added that pension funds should want to “clear up” the forecasts before investing in road projects. “If the Government wants to announce a scheme within 12 months, they will be hard pushed to audit, reform and improve the traffic model [in time]. It’s quite possible we have built, and are planning to build, some road schemes that aren’t worth the money. At the moment it’s taxpayer money, which is why no one gets sued.”
The spectre of legal action is hovering at a difficult time for the DfT, which was last week forced to rerun the competition for the West Coast Mainline rail franchise after discovering fundamental flaws in the methods used to calculate the winning bidder, FirstGroup.
Stephen Hammond, the Roads Minister, said that traffic forecasts took into account such factors as population size, income levels and transport costs. He said that the department’s assumptions were “very reliable” and had been “extremely accurate” in predicting the previous decade’s slower growth and decline, but were under constant review. “We continually update them to take account of emerging evidence.”
The “peak car” theory is supported by Transport for Quality of Life. The think-tank believes that factors in the decline might include teleconferencing, home shopping and “virtual travel”, particularly among younger people who communicate digitally.According to official figures, 48 per cent of 17 to 20 year-olds held driving licences in 1992; that figure had fallen to 35 per cent in 2010.
Richard McCulloch, a senior consultant at David Tucker Associates, the transport-planning consultancy, who will chair the debate today, said that environmental issues had forged a change in emphasis over the past decade. “Now it’s on getting people to use [the car] less. That’s reflected in planning development.”
A recent report by Tobias Kuhnimhof for the Institute for Mobility Research, part of BMW, found that car travel in many industrialised nations stagnated in the late 1990s because of ageing populations and the attitudes of young people.
David Metz, a former chief scientist at the DfT, said that it was the end of an era after two centuries of growth in travel. “While being able to go faster, we have been able to go farther. I think this has come to an end,” he said. Professor Metz added that DfT projection models were flawed because they do not account for “behaviours in society”.