Peak car – declining UK car use hasn’t bottomed-out yet, research suggests

December 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

train_ricardo_ReleaseJumped on the train (well, three different trains each way, to be precise) to go down to Bristol yesterday: winter conference at the Centre For Transport and Society, UWE. Key speaker (for me) was Prof. Phil Goodwin, writer of a new report on ‘peak car’ (see previous post) released concurrently with, but independently from, the research on a similar theme for the RAC Foundation. Quick rundown of my notes from his presentation, for those of you interested in such matters and the academic end of things:

  • His study “arises simply from an observation – (that) traffic levels do not seem to be rising”. But we need to be careful about “differentiating between traffic, car traffic, car ownership per person, mileage.”
  • Goodwin outlines four different future scenarios for how traffic volume will evolve: it could follow the upward forecasts as issued by the DfT; as soon as the recession stops, car use could continue to grown again (“interrupted growth”); or it has reached a saturation point; or the peak car hypothesis – which suggests “we are in the process of a radical shift”.
  • He points out that the latter is not a new idea – British government projections from 1973 gave a graph with a surprisingly accurate trajectory. “The saturation of car use is an old and continuing (theoretical) tradition… (but) …until now, the idea that car use would eventually saturate has been a proposition about the distant future. Now it is much closer to home… By about 2010 it became clear that something rather important was happening.” He uses stats from the National Travel Survey to show that car travel (measured in miles per year, per person) levelled out around 2000 and then dipped steeply in the middle of the last decade.
  • Similar trends have been noted (1990-2009, by the OECD International Transport Forum) in Germany, the USA, Australia, France and Japan. “Something seems to be happening in a lot of countries… a remarkable convergence on four key research themes in many different countries. The four themes are age/cohort effects, urban policy impacts, the impact of mobile internet/communications and cultural shifts, and of course, economic/income effects.
  • It’s not as straightforward as simply thinking that people are driving less because they can’t afford petrol, or due to other recession-related factors – Goodwin quotes David Metz on a “decoupling of distance travelled per income”. Traffic and travel measured per unit of GDP increased into the early ’90s but has now reversed in direction; the reduction in car use is (according to research by Gordon Stokes) higher than average amongst the highest-income men. Car use is actually increasing slightly amongst low-income men (having to drive more/further to get to work? An indicator of general rising inequalities?).
  • “Young men are behaving differently… access to a car by young men has been going down 2002-2008, fewer are getting licences, fewer are getting cars.” The pattern is different for young women – their car use is rising, though at a lower level than the increase for young men in the mid ’90s which this pattern shadows.
  • City policy has had an impact. “When you look at particular cities, there are places where declines in car use started earlier, typically large cities, i.e. London, Munich, Paris, but also smaller ones, i.e. Strasbourg, Freiburg, or the ‘sustainable travel towns’ with policies deliberately intended to improve public transport, walking, cycling.” It’s the rich towns, but car use is also falling in high-density urban developments.
  • But there are also the non-transport trends – the cultural shifts, i.e. online shopping, mobile internet – which are playing a role.
  • Goodwin points out that the Levine/Jones research for the RAC Foundation has “important new analysis on company cars” but is sniffy about the claim of a “one-off impact of a collapse in company car mileage”: “what they haven’t done is look at the car use of the non-company cars in the households which still had company cars”. Some of the company car mileage could have been displaced onto private cars as a result of corporate/fleet policy shifts, perhaps.
  • He thinks that “car use hasn’t bottomed-out” yet, and notes that “a lot of things are attributed to the recession that started before the recession”. Population growth “could yet be a factor due to the increased immigration in the last decade”, but “the interesting thing is that in some cities where aggregate car use has gone down (it) is where population is increasing”.
  • Ultimately, it’s all “a complex interweaving of factors… those factors are not resolved and there remains uncertainty”. But  “we should focus more on what sort of future we choose – and there is a rather wider choice (of potential solutions and outcomes) than we have thought”.

My note: not sure as yet how this squares with the data from the UK census released today. There’s been an increase 2001-2011 in the number of cars and vans, from 11 per 10 households to 12 per 10 households. London is now the only region where there are fewer vehicles than the number of households. And yes, going to UWE would have been quicker and considerably cheaper by car, I have to admit, but then I wouldn’t have been able to read two newspapers, do all the crosswords and word-games, read an entire novel and nod off along the way.


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