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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for October 22nd, 2011

Are we reaching ‘peak car’?

with 5 comments

The Globe and Mail looks at some data, and talks to some people, most of whom I have a lot of time for. I think the US data cited is pretty clear that they reached peak car some time ago. It has also been happening here

Australian researcher Jeff Kenworthy has found that driving in the nation’s [Canada] five largest cities, combined, declined by 1.7 per cent per capita from 1995 to 2006.

I suspect that when the 2011 data becomes available that trend will be seen to have accelerated. It is a great pity that much of the data we really need was suppressed by this government’s decision to cancel the 10% “long form” data which included journey to work.

We can argue about the reasons – because understanding that is important if we are to deal with the future properly. Enita Elashs’ assertion “it’s not just a product of high unemployment or skyrocketing fuel prices, as the pattern began to show up years before the 2008 financial crisis” is especially silly. For most people, real incomes have been in steady decline, for the last twenty years. Taxes on the wealthy have been greatly reduced, and jobs have been exported to the extent that manufacturing is now unusual in North American cities – and many European ones too. That is why it is not just Wall Street that is being occupied and it is not just Greece that might go bust soon. The events of 2008 were simply the peak of a steadily growing crisis. At one time, it was possible for families to have one income, reasonable accommodation, a decent standard of living and the justified expectation that if dreadful things happened to them (ill health, injury, unemployment) there was indeed a social safety net. All that has now gone, household income no longer keeps pace with inflation and, while income tax has been reduced, many inescapable fees and charges are now imposed, most with little or no recognition of ability to pay.  At the same time consumption taxes have increased significantly. People cannot afford to live as they once did.

Small wonder, then, that people have had to cut back on those things that they can do without. And driving is turning out to be one of them. People have become very creative at reducing the need for trips, and many things are changing in our society that require people to travel. I no longer go to the bank, or the video store – and the cinema visit is also much less frequent than in my youth. We are also seeing some change in the way that space is arranged – not nearly enough yet, and it is not happening anything like fast enough but places like Vancouver are showing that it is possible to have a good life and not own a car. As my last posting showed, there is a growing movement of people who are finding that being carless is a key to increasing happiness – and they are positively evangelical about it.

I am much less convinced that we have hit “the Marchetti Wall – the psychological barrier against spending more than about an hour getting to work or coming home.” For many places, housing affordability (or rather the lack of it) means some people are going to travel for longer than an hour, and not all of them find that a chore. In other cities (not this metropolitan area of course) it is possible to have a comfortable, long distance commute. And that commute time can be relaxing, or useful (catching up on reading or even working) as the commuter chooses. Not those forced to drive themselves, of course, though many seem to be trying and are reluctant to give it up – as the depressing data on texting and cell phone use attests. But many railway companies historically made significant profits by developing long distance commuter markets. The provision of club cars on the Long Island railway, for instance. Or the Pullman cars that served kippers for breakfast to commuters from Brighton to London. Every time BR brought in a new electrification scheme, the speed of travel increased and the commute distance increased with it. Partly that was due to the policy then of “decanting” population from Greater London – which has only been reversed in recent years with the redevelopment of what had once been the docks and the arsenal.

I have the suspicion (but no data at all) that the children of the boomers (Generation Y) were also the first to actively learn to dislike car travel, because they were strapped into car seats as infants, forced to ride in the back and often with nothing to see. Quite unlike the view you get from the front of a double decker bus, for instance. There were strapped in for the daily commute to school too – not allowed to walk or ride their bikes, due to fear of strangers. No wonder they don’t like cars much to begin with, and then find the whole process of learning to drive really stressful because of the genuine dangers and increasing road rage and intolerance of other drivers. They get their freedom when they get a transit pass or a bike, or get away to college. But they cannot afford a car and their student fees (which have increased exponentially). It is hard enough to balance the coursework and the need to work to earn some income part time, without shelling out most of it to the oil companies and car finance sharks.

the threat of separating people from their wheels (or taxing their fuel use) has long been one of the green movement’s biggest stumbling blocks

But also one of the most necessary things that has to happen if we are to have any kind of future at all on this planet. People do not like the truth, and prefer the more convenient lies that have been spun their way by the elites. That is not going to work indefinitely – and indeed seems to be ending now. Most people now accept that global warming is real and that human use of fossil fuels is responsible for much of it: and those that choose not to believe that are being shown to be deluded or deliberately misled. More entrepreneurs are realizing that sticking to old methods is not going to bring increasing rewards. The big three US based auto makers were the ones needing the bailouts – and all have significantly changed their model mix as a result.

The really innovative companies are those who are looking at not just smaller or more efficient cars, but ways to provide mobility and access to goods and services that do not require car ownership. Because once an individual finds out that it is not necessary to own a car, they find all kinds of other ways to spend what is a larger disposable income. It still includes a lot of travel, but travel that is actually enjoyable. When cars were new on the the market, “going for a drive” was one of their main uses: and people like Robert Moses built parkways to encourage that. It is that element which has been greatly reduced and could feasibly be eliminated.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 22, 2011 at 2:35 pm