Has Car Ownership Actually Peaked?
Many of us will be familiar with the doom-laden predictions of ever-increasing numbers of cars choking our roads.
It is a familiar refrain and one which is often used to justify the lack of investment in new roads. Essentially, it is the old 'build it and they will come' argument. The theory is that if we keep building new roads to increase capacity, then more and more motorists will take to the roads until the new road network becomes just as clogged as the old one. It is a tempting argument, especially for a government looking for a convenient excuse not to spend money on our roads.
Unfortunately for the proponents of this theory, the much anticipated growth in car numbers is simply not happening. In fact, the actual number of vehicles on our roads has not just failed to grow as quickly as the models predicted, it has actually started to decrease.
The total number of car miles travelled did indeed increase from 1960 until 2007, but since then total vehicle miles travelled (VMT) figure has decreased in the US, the UK and, in fact, in most developed countries. The numbers themselves are uncontested, the only argument is over what is causing them and how long the trend will last.
As might be expected, there is much debate on this point. Government departments are interpreting the trend as an interrupted growth pattern. They say that the downward trend is due to the recent economic downturn. There is some evidence for this view in the US, where VMT has increased very slightly in the last couple of years, mirroring that country's economic growth after the recession.
Other observers, however, point to changes in society, with younger people rejecting the car on environmental grounds. They interpret the current trend as being evidence of the peak-car concept, where the total number of cars on the road has actually peaked and will now decline. The outcome of this debate is important because it will have an impact on government policy on investment in the road network. In the US, less than 50% of people who were eligible for a driving licence in 2008 actually had one, compared with around 66% ten years earlier.
These scientists point to an interesting fact to explain the decline in car travel. They say that despite advances in cars, the actual time that most of us are willing to travel in any one day has remained unchanged at one hour. Now that our public transport systems can often take us where we want to go in this time, there is a declining value associated with car ownership.
There are also other factors at play. A maturing retail infrastructure means that now some 80% of us live within a 15-minute drive of at least three supermarkets. Given such a choice, there is little incentive for us to drive further. We also have an ageing population. Older people often have to give up driving for health reasons, and others will substantially limit their driving to essential journeys in their later years. This means that, although the population may be increasing, actual miles driven can fall. At the other end of the age spectrum, younger drivers are turning away from cars. They are no longer seen as being aspirational by those in their twenties, and research in Germany shows that the percentage of young people sitting their driving test has been steadily falling for a number of years. Cars, it seems, are no longer seen as cool, and in any case, rising insurance premiums and fuel costs have put car ownership beyond the reach of many young drivers. Indeed, one German car manufacturer has been so concerned about the long-term implications of such trends that it is beginning to make special offers available to the children of existing owners in order to entice a new generation of motorists.
It remains unclear whether the present trend is a blip or a long-term decline, but at the moment it seems that the argument about ever-increasing traffic simply doesn't stand up.