Phil Goodwin, Professor of Transport Policy at the University of the West of England, has written in Local Transport Today that that fewer young people are learning to drive. Between 1992 and 2007, the number of 17- to 20-year-olds who held licences fell from 48% to 38%, and for 21- to 29-year-olds, the number fell from 75% to 66%. In addition, there has been a decline in private transport’s share of trips from 50% in 1993 to 41% in 2008. According to Lynn Sloman, Director of Transport for Quality of Life, between 2004 and 2008 car trips per person went down by 9% and car distance per person by 5%.
One seemingly obvious candidate to explain the peak in car use is the rise of the internet. Before the internet, hardly anyone worked from home. Today, many people who have an office job work from home at least one day a week. If everyone works at home one day in five, that’s a 20% reduction in traffic. Only, it’s not that straightforward. As Goodwin points out, when a car is at home, it’s available for other members of the household to use. While the net effect is still positive, it isn’t big enough to explain peaking car use. Internet shopping has also made a small dent but, again, not big enough to explain the numbers.
Petrol prices have also had a modest impact. There is an inverse correlation between petrol prices and traffic – when petrol prices go up, traffic levels go down. But petrol will have to get a lot more expensive before people abandon their cars in significant numbers. ‘In the long run, people accommodate the rise in petrol prices by buying more economical cars,’ says David Metz, Visiting Professor at the Centre for Transport Studies at University College London.
Metz and Goodwin believe that a movement called ‘new urbanism’ may partly explain the drop in car use in cities such as London. New urbanism – to cite the movement’s website – promotes the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable [sic], compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities composed of the same elements as conventional developments, but assembled in a more integrated fashion, in the form of complete communities.
‘There was a period of about 20 years when the population of London declined as people moved out to the country, to market towns,’ says Metz, ‘but that trend has gone into reverse over the past 20 years so that now you’ve got fashionable inner-city areas, such as Hoxton and Shoreditch, which are the heart of digital enterprises. That is all helpful in terms of becoming less car-dependent, making more use of public transport, walking and cycling.’
My daughter is 20 and lives in south London. Of her extended group of friends, only two have driver’s licences. ‘Seeing how stressful driving can be is off-putting,’ she says. ‘Also, I know people who had a car but had to sell it because London’s so expensive.’
Recent transport policies are also having an effect. The introduction of controlled parking zones through most of London makes it almost impossible to find parking during the day, and the Congestion Charge zone has made it expensive to travel through central London. At the same time, there has been high investment in public transport – specifically rail travel.
‘From a carbon perspective, it gives us some hope,’ says Sloman. ‘There has tended to be an assumption on the part of policymakers that it’s just not possible to change people’s travel behaviour to less carbon-intensive means of travel, but if that’s happening already, perhaps we can support that change in behaviour by going with the grain of what people want to do.’ When Goodwin looked at the charts of public transport use in the last century, he saw strong and rapid growth of rail, buses and trams, followed by an abrupt and precipitous drop.
There was a vicious cycle as cars came to prominence. Each increase in car use accelerated more car use, because the quality of public transport declined. New towns, such as Redditch, were designed with drivers in mind. Increasing car use had an effect on the way cities were laid out. Small, local destinations closed and were replaced by bigger, more distant ones. Shopping centres, schools and hospitals began to be located away from the centres, so people needed cars to access them.
The $60,000 question is: will the process work in reverse? Will we see a virtuous circle of declining car use coupled with increasing use of greener modes of transport: our legs, bicycles, trams, trains and buses? Towns such as Groningen in the Netherlands, which embraced the new urbanism and paved over the town centre, have enjoyed an environmental and economic turnaround. Sixteen years ago, a six-lane motorway ran through the centre of the town. Today, 57% of Groningen’s population travel by bicycle – the highest proportion of bicycle users in the West – and the town has seen rents climb as people clamour to live in this now sought-after place.
‘I don’t see any reason for assuming that the car, considered as a metal box inherent to the physical movement of one or a small number of people, is going to be the way that societies organise themselves for ever,’ says Goodwin. ‘Eating miles is not an end in itself; it’s a means of participating in activities of one sort or another. And if there are other ways of participating that don’t eat so many miles, what’s not to like?’ What’s not to like indeed. It could be that, at last, we are coming to our senses.