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  • The meaning of ‘peak car’

    Is car use in decline in developed economies?  T&E Director Jos Dings takes a look at the concept of 'peak car' and how policymakers should respond.

    Over the past few years there has definitely been an upsurge in studies and articles suggesting that we have reached ‘peak car‘, i.e. car use is on the wane. Here’s an article from the FT last month (sub only), another from transport expert Phil Goodwin, an academic piece from the late Lee Schipper; the issue also gets coverage in the International Transport Forum’s 2011 outlook paper.  There are many more.  Some take carmakers as a starting point, and their worry that young people now care more about gadgets such as iPhones and iPads than cars.  They say youngsters now see cars as nothing more than a tool for going from A to B, once you’re done with Facebook, instead of as a status symbol.  Other studies are more academic and look at travel patterns; they tend to identify a rather flat or declining usage of cars.  Can we greens take comfort from this?

    I do believe that the days of fast growth of car use are over in developed countries. Motorways have been built, energy is not getting much cheaper, in many countries the population is not growing much anymore and indeed, young people may choose to travel a bit less. So the good news is that these countries can really cut their new roadbuilding budgets quite drastically and use the money for other things.

    But unfortunately this does not mean that the environmental pressures from personal mobility are about to go into a sharp decline. There is still an enormous amount of car travel around that will keep choking our planet, our lungs and our cities, even if it does not grow that quickly any more. What’s more, the ‘peak car’ trends are only identified in a small range of developed countries in Western Europe and North America. In Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, car ownership and use is still growing like crazy. And shrinking car use may be a trend amongst young people; once they get a job and kids, the ‘need’ for travel takes over from the ‘fun’ of travel.

    There is one point about ‘peak car’ that nobody seems to make though: that it’s all a rather unsurprising lesson in transport history. The first motorised form of travel was rail (taking off around 1850), the second was the car (taking off around 1920), and the third was air (taking off around 1960). It is only natural that, over time, more mature transport modes give way to emerging ones – in this case aviation.

    It is well known that the amount of time we spend travelling each day has hardly changed in centuries.  The unfortunate truth is that, in our desire to squeeze ever more kilometres into the 70 minutes we spend on travel each day, we have shifted to ever more carbon-intensive modes – from horses to trains via cars to air travel. Longer distances, more carbon-intensive modes: that’s transport history in a nutshell. On current trends the carbon footprint of air travel will take over from that of cars in a few decades. We can only hope we will not see viable supersonic aircraft after Concorde’s mothballing….

    So the ‘peak car’ story has huge implications for roadbuilding budgets; a few per cent less car use is vital when deciding on (not) building new roads.  But it is unfortunately only a marginal contribution to the necessary cuts in CO2 emissions that are needed. Better transport systems, better pricing, better cars and better fuels remain necessary as ever. And an all-out effort to curb air travel and its impacts.