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The idea of "Peak car"

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Last updated - Jan 2013

Pages in this series

1 - The idea of Peak Car

2 - Graphic analyses of trends

3 - More analyses of changes

4 - Attempt to forecast future car use

I wrote this material on peak car in 2012-13. Although the data is somewhat out of date now, I think the basic principles still apply.

What is "Peak Car"?

The idea of 'peak car' is based on observations that since the mid 1990s the amount of car use per person has been roughly stable in most western industrialised countries. It covers a broad range of explanations and a broad range of ideas as to what the future might hold. It does not necessarily imply that we have reached a peak from which the level will go down from now on, though some suggest that this may well be the case. Many suggest that a 'plateau' has been reached, and that we are at the end of the hundred year growth in automobility. Others suggest that the 'plateau' is a temporary slowing and we will see growth again.

These three ideas might be termed "Peak Car", "Plateau Car" and "Blip Car". The last one is also known as "interrupted growth".

Although it's now generally recognised by transport professionals that 'something has happened' it took a long time to be recognised, mainly because traffic levels do fluctuate from year to year, and surveys are notoriously variable due to sample sizes. The first published paper to suggest something was happening was by Barbara Noble in 2005, then a statistician working for the UK Department for Transport (Noble, 2005). But after that it wasn't until around 2009 that other publications appeared, and it is only since about 2011 that the idea has received any kind of widespread interest.

The graph below shows how traffic in Great Britain (that's the island of Scotland, Wales and England) has changed since 1973, both in total terms and per head of population. It's clear that total traffic grew up to about 2006 soon before the start of the recession, but that car traffic per person flatenned off in about 2002, and has fallen back to the level it was in 1995. (The difference is because population is rising). It's also the case that other forms of traffic such as light vans have carried on rising, so it's maybe not so much of a surprise that people didn't notice till recently. Source DfT traffic statistics Feb 2013, and ONS population data. All figures for 2012 are provisional.

The next graph is not particularly startling but shows the annual change in total traffic and in traffic per person. Up to the mid 1980s the lines were basically exactly the same but since then the growth in traffic per person has been consistently lower than growth in total traffic, which implies that a sort of decoupling was starting to occur even then. The differences were very small but since about 2004 the difference has been more marked. Source DfT traffic statistics Feb 2013, and ONS population data. All figures for 2012 are provisional.

What's happened where?

A flattening off of car use has been noted in several countries including the United States, The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Japan, and Norway. Its 'start' varies somewhat from country to country but generally from about the mid 1990s to the early 2000s. As such it does not seem to relate to recession, and not solely to particular factors in different countries.

It does have common factors in most countries where it's been observed, and the most common ones are that it's most notable for younger people (especially men) and that it's most common in larger cities, where reductions have been seen. But a general slowing or stopping of growth in car use per person has been noted for many more people, including middle aged people in fairly small settlements.

Possible causes

Several possible reasons have been put forward and these (from the UK) include:

  • A blip in the data, or a series of blips - this explanation has looked increasingly unlikely as more evidence has emerged
  • Rising cost of fuel - this has some plausibility, especially since around 2007, though before that fuel costs were not rising very fast.
  • The economic downturn since 2007/ 2008 - Again, this has certainly had an effect, but seems to relate to an actual fall in car use since then rather than the plateau (per person) before that
  • Increasing congestion
  • Increasing rail patronage
  • Cheaper air flights meaning that people substitute air travel for car travel
  • The drop in company car use due to taxation changes(in the UK)
  • The cost of learning and insurance for younger drivers - the driving test became more complex around 2002, and the cost of insurance has risen dramatically, at least in the UK
  • Immigration by lower income people into larger cities where there's less need for a car, has skewed the trends
  • Greater environmental awareness, especially amongst younger people
  • That policies to reduce car reliance have actually been more successful than most commentators gave them credit for
  • Communications technology has substituted for car trips
  • More ability to work from home has reduced work journeys
  • That the "Love affair with the car" is over, at least for most people - smart phones have become the new publicly viewable status symbol
  • That there's no extra utility to be gained from travelling further - there are enough supermarkets etc to provide for people's choice

All of these have some plausibility, but none could be said to account for all the change that has occured.

Further reading

Some work published on peak car includes:

Noble, B (2005) Why are some young people choosing not to drive?" Proceedings of the European Transport Conference, Strasbourg.

Le Vine, S, Jones, P and Polak, J (2009) Has the historical growth in car use come to an end in Great Britain? Proceedings of the European Transport Conference

The following five PowerPoint presentations are available from a seminar organised by the Transport Statistics Users Group on April 25 2012 in a single zip file. http://www.tsug.org.uk/seminar_presentations/95.zip

Le Vine, S and Jones, P (2012) On the move: making sense of car and train travel trends in Britain. RAC Foundation. http://www.racfoundation.org/research/mobility/on-the-move-main-research-page

The next pages present some analysis I've done on the phenomenon using the UK National Travel Survey

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Gordon Stokes, 2016