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.

 
 
 
 

Barcelona’s car-free “superblocks” could extend lives. So will they catch on elsewhere?

Barcelona. Image: Getty.

The world’s biggest cities have larger populations and higher economic outputs than some countries. But as they grow in size and complexity, cities are also facing thorny challenges that threaten the health and happiness of residents. Congestion, pollution and a lack of community spaces have become major drags on people’s aspirations and experiences of urban living.

In response, cities must manage their resources and priorities to create sustainable places for visitors and residents, and foster innovation and growth. Enter Barcelona – the capital of Catalonia, in Spain – where a bold stroke of urban planning first introduced “superblocks” in 2016.

Image: ISGlobal/FAL.

Superblocks are neighbourhoods of nine blocks, where traffic is restricted to major roads around the outside, opening up entire groups of streets to pedestrians and cyclists. The aim is to reduce pollution from vehicles, and give residents much-needed relief from noise pollution. They are designed to create more open space for citizens to meet, talk and do activities.


Health and well-being boost

There are currently only six superblocks in operation, including the first, most prominent one in Eixample. Reports suggest that – despite some early push back – the change has been broadly welcomed by residents, and the long-term benefits could be considerable.

A recent study carried out by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that if, as planned, 503 potential superblocks are realised across the city, journeys by private vehicle would fall by 230,000 a week, as people switch to public transport, walking or cycling.

The research suggests this would significantly improve air quality and noise levels on the car-free streets: ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) would be reduced by a quarter, bringing levels in line with recommendations from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The plan is also expected to generate significant health benefits for residents. The study estimates that as many as 667 premature deaths from air pollution, noise and heat could be prevented each year. More green spaces will encourage people to get outdoors and lead a more active lifestyle.

This, in turn, helps to reduce obesity and diabetes and ease pressure on health services. The researchers claim that residents of Barcelona could expect to live an extra 200 days thanks to the cumulative health benefits, if the idea is rolled out across the city.

Space to play. Imag: Mosa Moseneke/Unsplash.

There are expected to be benefits to mental health, as well as physical health. Having access to such spaces can stave off loneliness and isolation – especially among elderly residents – as communities form stronger bonds and become more resilient.

Stumbling blocks

It was Salvador Rueda, director of the Urban Ecology Agency of Barcelona, who first championed the introduction of superblocks – and he argues that the idea could be used in any city. Even so, authorities looking to expand the concept in Barcelona or beyond will need to be mindful of some concerns.

Changes like these require capital investment. Even as the car-free streets are transformed with urban furniture and greenery, the remaining major roads will likely have to accommodate heavier traffic.

Nothing comes for free. Image: Zvileve/Flickr/creative commons.

Further investments in local infrastructure – such as improving surrounding roads to deal with more traffic, or installing smart traffic management system – could be required to prevent serious congestion. Then the question remains, how to finance such investments – a higher tax rate is unlikely to be popular.


What’s more, whenever a location becomes more desirable, it leads to an increase in property demand. Higher prices and rent could create pockets of unaffordable neighbourhoods. This may lead to use of properties for investment purposes and possibly, displacement of local residents.

It’s also worth noting that Barcelona is an old and relatively well-planned European city. Different challenges exist in emerging global cities across Asia, Africa and Latin America – and in younger cities in the US and Australia. There is a great deal of variation in scale, population density, urban shape and form, development patterns and institutional frameworks across the cities. Several large cities in the developing world are heavily congested with uncontrolled, unregulated developments and weak regulatory frameworks.

Replicating what’s been done in Barcelona may prove difficult in such places, and will require much greater transformations. But it’s true that the basic principles of superblocks – that value pedestrians, cyclists and high quality public spaces over motor vehicles – can be applied in any city, with some adjustments.

Leading the way

Over the history of human civilisation, great cities have been at the forefront of innovation and social progress. But cities need a robust structure of governance, which is transparent and accountable, to ensure a fair and efficient use of resources. Imposing innovation from the top down, without consultations and buy-in, can go squarely against the idea of free market capitalism, which has been a predominant force for modern economies and can lead push-back from citizens and local businesses.

Citizens must also be willing to change their perspectives and behaviour, to make such initiatives work. This means that “solutions” to urban living like superblocks need to have buy-in from citizens, through continuous engagement with local government officials.

A man speaks at a public consultation on the Eixample superblock in Barcelona. Image: Ajuntament Barcelona/Flickr/creative commons.

Successful urban planning also needs strong leadership with a clear and consistent vision of the future, and a roadmap of how that vision can be delivered. The vision should be co-developed with the citizens and all other stakeholders such as local businesses, private and public organisations. This can ensure that everybody shares ownership and takes responsibility for the success of local initiatives.

There is little doubt that the principles and objectives of superblocks are sound. The idea has the potential to catch on around the world – though it will likely take a unique and specific form in every city.

The Conversation

Anupam Nanda, Professor of Urban Economics and Real Estate, University of Reading.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.