Denys Lawrence Munby was a man with a passion for transport statistics. The first reader in transport economics at Oxford University, he spent his life collecting rail, bus and tram timetables. By the time of his death in 1976—murdered by bandits, it is thought, in the mountains of Turkey—he had amassed Britain’s most complete set of travel data. With it he was able to pinpoint, for the first time, the moments at which different types of transport hit their peak.
Munby’s successor at Oxford, Phil Goodwin, found himself intrigued by these turning points. Did planners in the 1920s, having seen the railways grow throughout their lives, spot that train use was soon to fall sharply? Or the same for buses in the mid-1950s? They did not. This thought led Goodwin to a radical idea: might the west have already reached “peak car,” the moment when car use begins to decline?
The notion is heretical to transport planners, who assume that economic growth and car use go together, which has been the case for more than a generation. Globally, that trend will continue. A 2008 article in the journal Economic Policy predicts that of the 2.3bn cars made worldwide over the next half century, 1.9bn will be sold in developing markets. China’s car fleet is set to outnumber America’s by 2030.
Similarly, the government’s “national transport model” predicts that car use in Britain will rise, pretty much forever. Other models show an “s” pattern, with growth followed by saturation. But even the hint of a dip in car use would be hugely significant, with implications for policies ranging from long-term investment in railways to global carbon reduction targets.
Evidence of change came at the end of 2010 in a major study, “Are We Reaching Peak Travel?” by Lee Schipper at the University of California, Berkeley and Adam Millard-Ball at Stanford. They found evidence that total growth in motorised travel had levelled out or declined in eight rich countries, including Britain, with the correlation between prosperity and travel breaking down abruptly in 2003. People were still buying cars, just driving them less; the authors guessed a mix of rising fuel costs and infuriating congestion was the cause.
These results led Goodwin and others to comb carefully over British data, finding evidence for a more extreme conclusion: car travel had not just stalled, but was already in decline. The government’s travel surveys show that miles travelled by car had begun to slow in the mid-1990s, before gradually falling thereafter. The number of annual car trips had also dipped, while rail use had boomed, and long-term declines in cycling and walking had begun to reverse.
As a result, academic Kiron Chatterjee notes that government projections have begun to overestimate car travel growth. He also points to an intriguing trend: the number of 17 to 20 year olds holding a driving licence fell from 48 per cent in the early 1990s to 36 per cent in 2007. Research by the former chief scientist for the department of transport, David Metz, supports Chatterjee’s view. Trends vary by area—unsurprisingly, car use in London fell after the introduction of the congestion charge—but car travel’s share of overall transport has been falling for more than a decade.
At first glance, a blend of high fuel prices and the recession would be to blame. But given the drop-off began before the slump, other factors must be at play—environmental lifestyle choices, for instance. The Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank now examining the trend, posits a further imaginative possibility: that “younger people are now more interested in the technologies of communication such as smart phones, rather than in cars and driving.”
Here evidence is sparse, with a decline in youth driving more likely the result of hikes in insurance rates. Nonetheless, auto manufacturers aren’t taking chances. Renault is reported to have senior executives studying attitudes to “mobility,” fearing that tech-savvy young people no longer see car ownership as synonymous with freedom and social connection. Others, including both BMW and Audi, are experimenting with flexible rental and car sharing schemes to attract younger urbanites.
Might policy have had an effect? One initiative in Darlington, Peterborough and Worcester, which employed measures including extra bus and cycle investment, personal travel planning, and safe routes to school, reduced car trips by 8 per cent from 2004 to 2009. But Goodwin thinks instead that something deeper is at play. “The car was our core cultural icon and expression of personality,” he says. “It was about sex, and keeping up with the Joneses. Now perhaps that period is passing.”
It is difficult to tell if he is right. We could have already hit a peak, but the trend could just as well be a slowdown, or a recession-enhanced blip on an otherwise upward trajectory. It may take up to two decades to find out for sure. Even so, western planning models projecting the ever-upward march of cars now seem in need of revision. With such projections junked, it may also be easier for policies designed to lower car use to push at an open door. Weaning people off cars has long been the dream of transport policy mavens. Now might be just the moment to try again.