Peak Car is Real
Streetsblog Capitol Hill recently had a good discussion about “peak car” and whether it is a real phenomenon or a product of the recession:
In an article titled “We Are Approaching Peak Car Use,” the magazine examines an Australian study [PDF] which found driving rates are falling in a number of cities in Europe, North America and Australia.
Explanations include rising fuel prices, the increasing appeal of urbanism, and another interesting theory: that many urban areas have reached the limit people are willing to drive as part of their daily commute (about one hour).
The study authors conclude that traffic engineers need to change their models and rethink the assumption that traffic will increase annually.
Meanwhile, new data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics adds to the body of research about the decline in driving — but whether that amounts to “peak car use” is worth further consideration. The report shows a leveling off in vehicle miles traveled, beginning at the end of 2007….
These numbers don’t point to a cause. But the decline in driving aligns pretty well with the greatest period of economic contraction in a generation. And driving declines have long been linked to recessions. Which leaves us wondering: Is the decline part of a lasting trend, or does it just reflect a cyclical pattern tied to the economy?
Angie Schmitt goes on to cite stats that show both a recession-fueled decline in driving as well as declines that began well before the crash. The Pacific Northwest saw a decline in vehicle miles traveled beginning around 2002 with gas consumption peaking at about the same time. Some regions, like St. Louis, have seen VMT increase, but the Pacific Northwest numbers do suggest that “peak car” has arrived in some regions of the country.
And the numbers from the study that kicked off Schmitt’s article shows that California saw declines too. Car use in Los Angeles declined by 2.0% and in San Francisco it fell by 4.8%.
There are deeper trends at work too. As we examined on the blog about a year ago, the great shift away from driving is well under way. Millennials – those of us about age 30 and under – are leading the way, with a long-term decline in driving habits under way since 1995. We’ve found that it’s far more important to be connected to our digital devices than waste time unproductively behind the wheel of a car.
And of course, there’s the constantly-rising price of gas. But it’s not just gas prices alone – the Pacific Northwest peak in VMT from 2002 came at a time when the average price of gas there was about $1.75 per gallon, and fell even as gas prices remained around $2 at most (only in 2005 did prices begin marching up toward $3).
While some claim that the advent of electric cars will reverse the trend and send VMT back up, it seems that the iPhone and the iPad are more important. It doesn’t matter what engine is in a car, it is still a slow, expensive, and inconvenient way to get around. While some older generations will never believe that truth, wedded as they are to decades-old ideological beliefs that cars are always superior, the truth is now quite clear: Pacific Coasters, at least, have reached “peak car” and are eagerly adopting alternatives when and where they can.
In California that includes nearly a decade of rising ridership on intercity trains operated by Amtrak California.
The evidence is clear: the demand for alternatives to driving is there. High speed rail is an important part of meeting that demand. If you build it, Californians will ride.