Stephen Rees's blog

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

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

5 Responses

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  1. I suspect, and hope you are right: I really don’t understand why people call driving ‘more convenient’ than our normal rail/bike travel with children: cars have tiny windows, no toilet, uncomfortable seatbelts and are downright noisy and dangerious. It seems pretty obvious to me.

    The current permier in our state is from the Green Party and he’s told Mercedes and Porsche that they need to change their thinking and product rance from cars to broader mobiliy solutions, because the age of cheap oil is over. They told him to stop being silly.

    He also told them they would have to start paying tax…

    BTW I think there is more manufacturing in Germany than in the UK: It’s quite common even in small towns to have some fatory making something.

    Andy in Germany

    October 23, 2011 at 4:04 am

  2. It’s funny you give 1995 as the start of the driving decline. Ontario and Nova Scotia introduced graduated licensing programs in 1994 and B.C. in 1998. Take 16 and 17 year olds out of the driving pool and it isn’t difficult to find a 2% decline.

    Such programs give more tangible causes than pet theories about teenage fear of “road rage.” (“‘Road Rage’ versus Reality” – The Atlantic – Aug. 1998)


    October 23, 2011 at 10:30 am

  3. I decided not to ever have a car a few months after moving to Canada. But then it was easy as I lived and worked in Toronto. Talk about culture shock when I arrived in Vancouver in 1980 and found out there was no rapid transit.. Luckily I found a job downtown, a 20 minutes bus ride or a 40 minutes walk from my home in Mt Pleasant.

    When I was growing up in France not too many of the people living in cities had a car (we lived at first in a 250 m2–about 2700 sq ft– apartment in a 19th cent. building that had no indoor garage and parking in the street wasn’t possible). By the mid-sixties suburbs around towns big and small were getting bigger than the town in the centre and cars were everywhere.
    This is still true to some extent.
    While urban residents don’t need a car, suburban and rural residents need one, as here. Cities have good transit systems but the interurban trains and buses that used to go to even remote places went the way of the dodo in the 70s…

    They are back but only in some densely populated corridors. Anyone living in remote areas (hard to believe that any European country has remote area but they do).
    Bordeaux (I like to use it as it is both a well known town-if only for the wrong reasons– yet not a big one: barely 1 million with the farthest towns around it) is serviced by 11 lines of regional commuter trains and 64 lines of regional commuter buses.

    All the same, more people use private cars than public transit…especially if one includes car-sharing programs that are found in many towns, including small ones. La Rochelle was the first one, in the mid 1990s … (Paris’ bike sharing program and its recently announced car-sharing program are latecomers)

    Click to access LA_ROCHELLE_Matthieu_Graindorge.pdf

    Red frog

    October 23, 2011 at 9:48 pm

  4. “…the world paid an additional $29 TRILLION for oil [1974-2010] than it had become accustomed to over most of the 20th century at a much lower price.”

    That was a statement accompanied by graphs and stats by “Calgary Oilman” in the comment thread of this Oil Drum post:

    What an absolutely stunning figure. Further comments document the hundreds of billions spent in the USA on gasoline and diesel over the past decade. Just think of the financial resources freed up if even a small portion of this oligopoly was broken off and people could save money by dumping their multiple cars if transit was made into a viable alternative instead of remaining a minority shareholder in rebuilding our cities.


    October 27, 2011 at 12:31 pm

  5. […] to Stephen Rees for this speculation on why the current generation doesn’t have an affection for driving: I have the suspicion […]

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