Driving in London has been falling since 1990. Has the city passed "peak car"?

Which lane is the future? Image: Getty.

Cars are one of the biggest threats to the planet. The transport sector accounts for more than 60 per cent of global oil consumption and about a quarter of energy-related carbon emissions.

It's also seen as harder to decarbonise than other parts of the economy. Typical forecasts of future world vehicle ownership point to substantial increases, particularly in the developing economies.

But the problem of transport-related greenhouse gases may be less than generally thought. There is emerging evidence that individual car use, as measured by the average annual distance travelled, has ceased to grow in most of the developed economies – a phenomenon that started well before the recent recession. In some countries, it may already be declining, a phenomenon known as “peak car”.

A number of factors could could contribute to this trend. Suggestions have included a decline in the number of younger people holding driver’s licences, changes to company car taxation and the technological constraints that stop us travelling faster on roads. It may also be that we have simply sufficient daily travel to meet our needs.

There has also been a shift away from car use in urban areas. This could be particularly important in a world where future population growth will be mainly urban, and where densely populated cities are seen as a driver for economic growth.

For example, over the past 20 years the population of London has been growing and incomes have been rising – yet car use has held steady at about 10m trips a day. This is mainly because the city has not increased road capacity but instead has invested in public transport.

Most importantly, rail offers speedy and reliable travel for work journeys compared with the car on congested roads. This gets business and professional people out of their cars, which makes the city a less congested and more agreeable place to be.

With a growing population but static car use, London has seen a marked decline in the share of journeys by car, from 50 per cent of all trips in 1990 to 37 per cent currently. With continued population growth projected and more investment in rail planned, the share of trips by car could fall to 27 per cent by mid-century. There is every reason to suppose that London will continue to thrive as car use declines – and perhaps because car use declines.

This decrease in car use from 1990 was preceded by a 40-year period of growth from 1950. That was the result of rising incomes, leading to increased car ownership – and, at the same time, a falling population, as people left an overcrowded damaged city for new towns, garden cities and greener surroundings. So we see a marked peak in car use at around 1990, the time when the population of London was at a minimum, which was when attitudes to city living began to change.

Screenshot from David Metz's 2015 paper, "Peak Car in the Big City: Reducing London's transport greenhouse gas emissions".

This phenomenon of peak car in big cities is not unique to London, although this is the city for which we have the best data. There is evidence for something similar happening in Birmingham, Manchester and other British cities, as well as those in other developed countries. The shift in economies from manufacturing to services is an important driver, as is the growth of higher education located in city centres, attracting young people for whom the car is not part of their lifestyle.

If car use has really peaked, both in the sense of national per capita figures and the share of trips in cities, it should help mitigate greenhouse gas emissions from transport. I have estimated that these changes in behaviour, taken together with expected developments of low-emission vehicles, could by 2050 reduce UK surface transport greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent of their 1990 level. This falls short of the overall target of an 80 per cent reduction, but it's a good deal better than conventional projections.

Peak car is not just an emerging phenomenon to be investigated. It is a helpful trend to be encouraged, to achieve both successful, sustainable cities and national reduction of transport greenhouse gas emissions. The Conversation

David Metz is a visiting professor in transport studies at University College London.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Vanilla Skybus: George Romero and Pittsburgh’s metro to nowhere

A prototype Skybus on display near Pittsburgh. Image: BongWarrior/Wikimedia Commons.

The late director George A Romero’s films are mainly known for their zombies, an association stretching from his first film, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, to his last as director, 2009’s Survival of the Dead.

But many of them are also a record of Pittsburgh, the city he lived and worked in, and other locations in the state of Pennsylvania in the late 20th century. Martin (1978), for example, isn’t just a movie about a kid who thinks he’s a vampire: it’s a moving portrayal of the post-industrial decay of the Pittsburgh borough of Braddock.

Though born in New York, Romero studied in Pittsburgh and stayed in the city after graduation, shooting commercials as part of the successful Latent Image agency. It was in collaboration with advertising colleagues that he shot his debut Night of the Living Dead. On both that movie and subsequent films, Romero and his colleagues used their experience and connections from the agency to secure cheap and striking locations around the city and state. 

It’s in Romero’s little-seen second film, 1971’s romantic drama There’s Always Vanilla, that a crucial scene touches on a dead end in the history of urban transport in Steel City.

In the scene Vietnam vet Chris, only recently returned to town after a failed music career, sees his father off on a train platform, after an evening where Chris got his dad stoned and set him up with a stripper. (It was the early 1970s, remember.) An odd little two-carriage metro train pulls up on an elevated concrete platform, Chris’ father rides away on it, and then Chris literally bumps into Lynn, whom he then both gaslights and negs. (It was the ‘70s.) You can see the scene here.

A screenshot from There's Always Vanilla, showing the Skybus through a chain link fence.

If you don’t live in Pittsburgh, you might assume that funny little train, still futuristic forty years on, is just an everyday way of getting around in the exciting New World. Who knows what amazing technology they have over there, right?

In fact, the Transit Expressway Revenue Line, more snappily referred to as the Skybus, not only doesn’t exist today: it hardly existed at all, beyond what we see in that short scene. In the 1960s there were plans to replace Pittsburgh’s street car system with a more up to date urban transit system. The Skybus – driverless, running on rubber tires on an elevated concrete track with power provided with an under rail system – drew enough support from the Port Authority and Federal Government for them to fund a short demonstration track at the Allegheny County Fair, at that point a local institution.

It’s this demonstration track and train that appears in There’s Always Vanilla. Film makers love isolated systems like this, or the UK’s many heritage railways, because they allow for multiple takes and a controlled environment. So it made sense for Romero to use this local curio rather than seek access to an in-use station.


The sequence in Vanilla shows that the Skybus system worked, and as a potential metro system it looks quite striking to this day with its curved windows and distinctive logo. But the proposed system wasn’t popular with everyone, and cost concerns and political wrangling stalled the project – until it was finally rejected in favour of a more conventional steel wheel on steel rail transit system.

The demonstration track was pulled up in 1980, although the small station and platform seen in the movie remains: Romero expert Lawrence Devincentz narrates a photo tour of the building on the blu ray of There’s Always Vanilla.

Vanilla was renamed and barely seen on release, but is now available as part of a boxset of Romero’s early works from Arrow Video, in ridiculously pristine 2K digital transfer. The Skybus is there too, a curio of Pittsburgh history caught on a few short minutes of film. Neglected back then, both seem considerably more interesting now.

‘There’s Always Vanilla’ is available on blu ray as part of Arrow’s ‘George A. Romero: Between Night and Dawn’ box set, and will receive a standalone release later this year.

Mark Clapham used to work in rail regulation, but now writes things like this. He tweets as @markclapham.