Recent reports have suggested that car usage has peaked and is not increasing as many had predicted. This report is causing some surprise, especially as the UK government has plans in place to make sure our roads are capable of coping with a predicted increase in road traffic.
The theory is known as ‘Peak Car’ and is affecting both the United States and the UK as well as some other countries. We have come to expect that car usage will steadily increase as our population increases, but this doesn’t appear to be happening. The car boom of the seventies and eighties started to level out as far back as the nineties and in the early part of the last decade, the average individual mileage started to show signs of having reached it’s natural peak.
The biggest surprise is that young male teenagers are driving less. We have all probably grown up with the idea that in the affluent west, it’s almost a rite of passage that as your teenage son reaches that certain age, he is handed the keys to a small engined hatchback to set him up on the road – one of the biggest purchases an individual will make or receive. But this is no longer the case. The evidence is telling us that young males are driving much less that they used to be doing. Conversely, young women drivers are on the increase.
The number of cars in London has fallen by 37% since 2000 after peaking in 1990. Yet, despite this the government is planning to hurl millions at road improvement schemes to cater for an increase in traffic. The Growth and Infrastructure Bill was launched in October 2012. One possible outcome of this bill would be to allow new road builds an easier route to fruition. But is this really necessary if Peak Car is indeed more than just a theory?
We can argue that a likely reason for Peak Car in the case of young teenage men is a higher cost of car insurance while a reduction in the amount of cars in London might well be down to the lack of parking and the congestion charge – it can be no coincidence that the 37% fall in cars roughly coincides with the introduction of the congestion charge in 2003.
The average mileage tail-off is very likely to be influenced by the recession and the current price of petrol. The cheapest petrol near me is now 132.8p, yet it doesn’t seem that long ago that we were all talking about boycotting certain fuel retailers as the price point came close to hitting 100p per litre. These days we just seem to accept that this is the inevitable price we have to pay to stay on the road.
If we have reached a peak in car travel, then are we likely to then see an actual decline in the future? I think this might indeed happen – but it won’t be a slippery slope. In early 2013 there will be a parliamentary inquiry into cycling, which has seen a marked increase over recent years. My own theory is that we are approaching a point where cars, pedestrians and bicycles will share equal billing when it comes to future planning. For years we have been told that cars are bad for the environment and that the future is in electric vehicles, cycling and public transport. It is inevitable that this might well have a knock-on effect on the public attitude to road travel.
The other thing to consider of course is the economy. If we finally shake of this recession and the price of fuel comes down to a reasonable level, who’s to say that car travel will not begin to increase again. The car industry is often a reflection of a country’s current economic situation. Often seen as a luxury, the car is always likely to be the first thing that is sacrificed when times are hard. This could in part account for some of the findings relating to the Peak Car theory.
Motorway image from jeremygillies.com