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.

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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