With studies showing a decline in car use, are we seeing the beginning of the end for the car?by James Crabtree / April 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.