More Proof We've Hit Peak Car Use?

Car Graveyard photo

Photo kodiax2 via flickr and Creative Commons license.

From the New York Times' story yesterday on Euro nations determined to make car driving an expensive, painful option, to the news that driving rates are dropping in the Pacific Northwest, there's never been more commentary and consternation about our car-centric world. Two Australian researchers are chiming in with their idea that peak car use is already upon us.

Peak Cars on LA freeway photo

Photo FontFont via flickr and Creative Commons license.

Researchers Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy, writing in the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice, find some new evidence of peak car use.

They reference the work by Adam Millard-Ball and Lee Schipper, who studied eight countries' and travel patterns and came up with something they termed peak travel saying, "the assumption that travel demand will continue to rise should be treated with caution."

Newman and Kenworth also point to a Brookings report (2008) that indicated that car use (vehicle miles traveled) plateaued in around the 2004 - 2006 timeframe, and since 2007 has begun to subside. Another set of researchers found a similar pattern in Australia, with the peak of car use also occurring at around that same time, and declining after. Phil Goodwin, a transport economist in the UK, has put together a similar set of findings.

Newman and Kenworth then site data from the Millenium Cities Database (though not updated since 2005) to shore up their idea of peak car use by showing that strong growth rates have reversed: growth in per capita car use globally was 42% in the 1960s, 26% in the 70s and 23% in the 80s. By the last period observed - 1995 to 2005 - growth had dropped to a 5% increase. Five percent growth is still growth, however, so Newman and Kenworth show that vehicle kilometers traveled (vkt) per capita have declined in quite a few European cities as well as a few famous car-friendly U.S. cities - Altlanta's vkt per capita dropped 10.1 %, Houston's vkt went down 15.2%, while Los Angeles' vkt dropped 2%. Since more recent data isn't ready, the picture and solidity of the peak car use theory could still change. In the U.S., for example, driving rates rose in 2010 by 0.7%.

While waiting for the additional data, Newman and Kenworth speculate on factors they say blend together in causing peak car use - the aging of cities (more people coming back from the suburbs to the inner cores and driving less), the growth of public transport, many cities hitting a wall in expansion after average commutes (by car or even train) get beyond one hour's time, and the rise in fuel prices.

Since these theories in large part are covering the already-developed world, it's hard to guess if China has reached car use saturation or if it's only at the start of its' automotive love affair.

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More on peak cars:
My Other Car Is A Bright Green City'
Global Car Ownership Per Capita Peaked In 2004 - Are We Breaking Our Auto Addiction?
Car-Dependent Suburbs May Be Slums of the Future

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