The Economist: Don’t Expect Driving Rates to Rise Again

This whole “peak car” may be more than just a sustainability nut’s fantasy. We’ve seen time after time that young people are souring on car culture and finding other ways to get around and connect with friends. We know that the suburban sprawl that fueled the rise of the automobile is in decline. And now The Economist – no treehugging lefty publication – is listing off reason after reason why the trend of declining driving — “peak car,” they call it — is here to stay.

Graphic: The Economist

First, let’s be clear: Driving rates are plateauing and even dropping in developed countries, or what The Economist bluntly calls “the rich world.” Developing countries are a few decades behind and are just entering a car acquisition stage. According to a study conducted earlier this year, 20 developed countries show a “saturating trend” on driving. The results are the same for all three measures of saturation: total distance driven, distance per driver and total trips made. “After decades when each individual was on average travelling farther every year, growth per person has slowed distinctly, and in many cases stopped altogether,” the article states.

Is it just the recession? High unemployment? Stubborn gas prices? The Economist, like many analysts before, says the trend goes deeper than those temporary factors. Here’s why:

Generational shift. The generation that went cruising around town in tail-finned Chevys is in retirement now. More American retirees have drivers licenses than ever before – and “more than 90 percent of people aged 60-64 can drive, a larger share than for any other cohort,” the article states. “New generations of drivers will replace old ones rather than add to the total number.” Older people tend to drive shorter distances than younger ones.

Meanwhile, throughout the developed world, young people are less eager to start driving and they’re getting their licenses later. Studies show that people who learn to drive later in life continue to drive less. Gordon Stokes of Oxford University found that people in Britain who learn in their late 20s drive 30 percent less than those who learn a decade earlier.

Geography. The growing preference for urban living, fueled in part by a desire to walk more and drive less, also reduces VMT. In wealthy countries, car use is still stable or increasing in rural areas, but that’s not where the future is. “The OECD, a rich-country think-tank, expects that by 2050, 86 percent of the rich world’s population will live in urban areas, up from 77 percent in 2010.” Nature magazine recently mapped the urbanization trend, noting, “The United Nations predicts that cities will absorb all of the world’s population growth — of around 2.3 billion people — in the next four decades.” [emphasis mine]

The preference to go car-free in cities has been on the rise since long before the recession or $4.00 gas prices. Better public transit and new car-sharing services like Zipcar help make this a viable preference.

Graphic: The Economist

Sprawl. The Economist article points out that “the car has become a victim of its own success.” For decades, auto-centric development sprawled outward from cities, as newly-built highways allowed people to commute to the city quickly. But the more people opted to get cars and move out to the hinterlands, the more crowded those highways became. Given that the maximum time people are willing to take on is generally unmovable at 30 minutes each way, the maximum distance you can live from your job increased with highway expansion and shrunk again with congestion. The Economist calls it a “sprawl wall.” It’s one of many reasons that more than half of U.S. cities are seeing more growth in the core than the periphery.

Result: Driverless Cars or Better Policies? The Economist takes stock of the growing desperation among automakers about the state of the U.S. market and concludes that they’re going to bet on driverless cars to take them into the future: “If buyers are less interested in driving, then cars will require less driving from them.” Driverless cars would bring a host of other factors to bear: They could cut congestion somewhat because they can travel closer together without safety concerns — though if people opt for driverless cars over mass transit they could dramatically increase congestion. And the article says driverless cars could “strain the already weakening link between driving and identity and the sense of driving as an expression of self and skill.”

But a far more meaningful outcome of this trend would be for smart governments to revolutionize their transportation policies to accommodate greater transportation options in the future. The Economist notes that “urban planning, in particular, has for half a century focused on cars.”

America built 64,000 kilometres (40,000 miles) of interstate highway to get the country moving after the second world war; since 1980 it has built more than 35,000 new lane-kilometres a year. If policymakers are confident that car use is waning they can focus on improving lives and infrastructure in areas already blighted by traffic rather than catering for future growth. That is already happening in London, where cars pay to enter the centre and ever more space is dedicated to buses and cycles. At Canary Wharf, a business district in east London, 100,000 jobs are supported by only 3,000 parking spaces.

By improving alternatives to driving, city authorities can try to lock in the benefits of declining car use. Cars take up more space per person than any other form of transport — one lane of a freeway can transport 2,500 people per hour by car, versus 5,000 in a bus and 50,000 in a train, reckon Peter Newman and Rob Salter of Curtin University in Australia.

The transportation bill that passed a few months ago in this country didn’t go nearly far enough in envisioning a future beyond car dependence and endless sprawl. That means the country is preparing for a future that isn’t expected to happen. The dip in driving isn’t a flash in the pan. Given the significant societal factors that have contributed to it, we should expect it to stick around for a while.