The end of our love affair with the car?
By Walt Seifert
It seemed like it could never happen. Yet people are driving less, at least in some developed countries. The idea of “peak car” is that a saturation level of car use is being reached in richer nations. On a per-capita basis, vehicle miles traveled is leveling off or decreasing. It isn’t happening everywhere. In places such as China and India, mileage and car sales are up.
But the mileage curve is drooping in Great Britain, Australia, Japan and 16 other countries. Surprisingly, it’s down even in the United States.
In countries with little or no population growth, the change in the curve of miles driven could profoundly affect transportation planning. Even in the United States (“still the most car-mad country in the world,” according to The Economist), there’s been a decline in the average miles driven by each individual. The U.S. population is increasing, so overall mileage driven may still go up.
No one is really sure why it’s happening. Certainly the U.S. and worldwide recession has resulted in fewer jobs and fewer people commuting, but the decline in mileage driven started in some countries back around 1990, well before the recession. The trend reversal has been more recent in the United States, where there was a plateau in per-capita mileage posted in 2000 and then a drop after 2004. In the United States, even given its increase in population, total miles driven reached a plateau in 2004 and began declining in 2007.
It’s not unusual for people’s transportation choices to change over time. Aviation has gone up while passenger rail went down. Public transit, until fairly recently, has been on a decades-long decline. Meanwhile, the annual growth in vehicle miles driven has been almost uninterrupted since the 1950s.
It’s fun (at least my idea of fun) to speculate on the reasons, besides the economy, that people might be driving less. Certainly the cost of gas is one reason, along with insurance and other vehicle operating costs. Fill-ups that eat up more than half of a hundred dollar bill tend to make you think about whether trips are worthwhile.
Young people are delaying getting licenses. Perhaps the old intense impetus for teens to get a car as a way to socialize, shop and get away is being weakened by the Internet. Social media is substituting for face-to-face contact. Who needs to go to the mall when you can order online and text your friends?
It could be that investments in transit, bike lanes and sidewalks are paying off. People are able to switch to transportation modes other than driving because it is easier, safer and more convenient to do so. Cities across the country have expanded the reach and frequency of transit service, put in bike lanes and added sidewalks and other pedestrian amenities.
There’s been a shift from suburban living to urban living. Cities, with their concentration of goods, services and entertainment, make shorter trips possible and usually offer a greater variety of ways to get around than do spread-out bedroom communities.
There’s also a theory that people have a time budget for transportation. Most people aren’t willing to spend much more than an hour a day commuting. When congestion and the size of cities bust that 60-minute budget, people rethink where they live and how they get around.
Culturally, the long love affair with cars may be over. Young people tend to view automobiles in utilitarian terms. They don’t necessarily view cars as an extension of their personality, as proof of status or virility. When a car is just a means to an end and getting somewhere becomes a chore, the joy is taken out of joy rides. In a similar vein, one commentator noted that the age of polishing the car on Sunday mornings is past. What was a cherished icon has devolved into the less shiny commonplace.
So what’s it all mean? For planners it means infrastructure investments have to be even more carefully considered. Investing in new roads instead of transit, cycling and walking may not be the sure bet it once was. Peak car also means that governments may not be able to count on the growth in fees related to car use, such as parking charges, fines, road tolls and gas taxes.
Peak car has implications for car manufacturers as well. A corollary to peak car use is reduced car sales. Manufacturers may need to shift their emphasis on marketing to developing countries instead of developed countries.
The Economist says, “By improving alternatives to driving, city authorities can try to lock in the benefits of declining car use. Cars take up more space per person than any other form of transport—one lane of a freeway can transport 2,500 people per hour by car, versus 5,000 in a bus and 50,000 in a train …” Less driving also means cleaner air, safer streets and more livable communities.