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.

 
 
 
 

Businesses need less office and retail space than ever. So what does this mean for cities?

Boarded up shops in Quebec City. Image: Getty.

As policymakers develop scenarios for Brexit, researchers speculate about its impact on knowledge-intensive business services. There is some suggestion that higher performing cities and regions will face significant structural changes.

Financial services in particular are expected to face up to £38bn in losses, putting over 65,000 jobs at risk. London is likely to see the back of large finance firms – or at least, sizable components of them – as they seek alternatives for their office functions. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has informed its employees of impending relocation, JP Morgan has purchased office space in Dublin’s docklands, and banks are considering geographical dispersion rather concentration at a specific location.

Depending on the type of business, some high-order service firms will behave differently. After all, depreciation of sterling against the euro can be an opportunity for firms seeking to take advantage of London’s relative affordability and its highly qualified labour. Still, it is difficult to predict how knowledge-intensive sectors will behave in aggregate.

Strategies other than relocation are feasible. Faced with economic uncertainty, knowledge-intensive businesses in the UK may accelerate the current trend of reducing office space, of encouraging employees to work from a variety of locations, and of employing them on short-term contracts or project-based work. Although this type of work arrangement has been steadily rising, it is only now beginning to affect the core workforce.

In Canada – also facing uncertainty as NAFTA is up-ended – companies are digitising work processes and virtualising workspace. The benefits are threefold: shifting to flexible workspaces can reduce real-estate costs; be attractive to millennial workers who balk at sitting in an office all day; and reduces tension between contractual and permanent staff, since the distinction cannot be read off their location in an office. While in Canada these shifts are usually portrayed as positive, a mark of keeping up with the times, the same changes can also reflect a grimmer reality.  

These changes have been made possible by the rise in mobile communication technologies. Whereas physical presence in an office has historically been key to communication, coordination and team monitoring, these ends can now be achieved without real-estate. Of course, offices – now places to meet rather than places to perform the substance of consulting, writing and analysing – remain necessary. But they can be down-sized, with workers performing many tasks at home, in cafés, in co-working spaces or on the move. This shifts the cost of workspace from employer to employee, without affecting the capacity to oversee, access information, communicate and coordinate.

What does this mean for UK cities? The extent to which such structural shifts could be beneficial or detrimental is dependent upon the ability of local governments to manage the situation.


This entails understanding the changes companies are making and thinking through their consequences: it is still assumed, by planners and in many urban bylaws and regulations, that buildings have specific uses, that economic activity occurs in specific neighbourhoods and clusters, and that this can be understood and regulated. But as increasing numbers of workers perform their economic activities across the city and along its transport networks, new concepts are needed to understand how the economy permeates cities, how ubiquitous economic activity can be coordinated with other city functions, such as housing, public space, transport, entertainment, and culture; and, crucially, how it can translate into revenue for local governments, who by-and-large rely on property taxes.

It’s worth noting that changes in the role of real-estate are also endemic in the retail sector, as shopping shifts on-line, and as many physical stores downsize or close. While top flight office and retail space may remain attractive as a symbolic façade, the ensuing surplus of Class B (older, less well located) facilities may kill off town-centres.

On the other hand, it could provide new settings within which artists and creators, evicted from their decaying nineteenth century industrial spaces (now transformed into expensive lofts), can engage in their imaginative and innovative pursuits. Other types of creative and knowledge work can also be encouraged to use this space collectively to counter isolation and precarity as they move from project to project.

Planners and policymakers should take stock of these changes – not merely reacting to them as they arise, but rethinking the assumptions that govern how they believe economic activity interacts with, and shapes, cities. Brexit and other fomenters of economic uncertainty exacerbate these trends, which reduce fixed costs for employers, but which also shift costs and uncertainty on to employees and cities.

But those who manage and study cities need to think through what these changes will mean for urban spaces. As the display, coordination and supervision functions enabled by real-estate – and, by extension, by city neighbourhoods – Increasingly transfer on-line, it’s worth asking: what roles do fixed locations now play in the knowledge economy?

Filipa Pajević is a PhD student at the School of Urban Planning, McGill University, researching the spatial underpinnings of mobile knowledge. She tweets as @filipouris. Richard Shearmur is currently director of the School, and has published extensively on the geography of innovation and on location in the urban economy.