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The Present

We have hit “peak car”

People are driving less. This trend is expected to continue.

Credit: Denys Nevozhai via Unsplash

Key Takeaways
  • Car production may never exceed its level in 2017.
  • Car usage has been falling in Western countries, particularly in cities.
  • Ride-hailing and public transit likely are the future of transportation.

The following is an excerpt from the bookA Brief History of Motion.

In the 2020s there are clear signs that enthusiasm for cars is finally waning. Even some people within the industry now acknowledge that the world is now at, or has passed, “peak car” — the point at which car ownership and use level off and start to decline. Car production may never exceed its level in 2017. “It could well be that we passed the peak in global automotive production,” said Volkmar Denner, chief executive of Robert Bosch, the world’s largest maker of car parts, in January 2020. And that was before the coronavirus pandemic whacked car sales.

China has been the driver of car sales in the early twenty-first century, with the number of vehicles sold rising from 5 million in 2004 to 29 million in 2017. But sales have since slowed, spurred in part by a switch to ride hailing, which is an enormous industry in China. Didi Chuxing, the country’s ride-hailing giant, provides twice as many rides each day within China as Uber does in the rest of the world. (In 2018 Didi provided 10 billion rides within China, or about 30 million per day, compared with 14 million Uber rides a day globally.) A survey in 2016 by the consulting firm McKinsey found that 60 percent of Chinese consumers no longer considered owning a car to be a status symbol, and 40 percent said that owning a car seemed less important, because of the proliferation of alternatives, such as ride hailing, bike rental, and so on. Car ownership has become steadily less attractive in China because of the relatively high level of taxes, insurance costs, and parking fees, while lower labor costs make ride hailing more affordable than in Western countries. And car ownership has not developed to the same extent as in Western countries — there are around nineteen cars per hundred people, compared with eighty-four in the United States and sixty-one in Europe — and may now never do so. Instead, the growing Chinese middle class, which has shown itself to be receptive to new services and products, seems happy to skip the hassle of car ownership in favor of on-demand mobility services arranged via smartphone. If so, the motor that had been driving global car sales has been switched off.

Evidence for peak car in Western countries, meanwhile, has been accumulating for some time. In America, the total number of vehicle miles traveled has continued to increase. But it has been growing more slowly than both the total number of vehicles and the population. The number of miles driven per vehicle, and per person of driving age, both peaked in 2004 and have since fallen to levels last seen in the 1990s. The average distance driven per person per year peaked in the 2000s or earlier in many Western cities including London, Stockholm, Vienna, Houston, and Atlanta. In Australia, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and Spain, distance traveled per person has been flat or falling since the early 2000s (in Britain, the average motorist drove seventy-six hundred miles in 2018, down from ninety-two hundred in 2002). Miles traveled by car per annum per capita in Italy, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden peaked in 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2005 respectively.

In America the proportion of the population with a driving license declined between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. Young people are either qualifying to drive at a later age or not doing so at all. Since the 1980s, the proportion of Americans with a license has fallen from 46 percent to 25 percent among sixteen-year-olds, 80 percent to 60 percent among eighteen-year-olds, and 92 percent to 77 percent among those aged twenty to twenty-four, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. Young people are also qualifying to drive later than they used to in Britain, Canada, France, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden. Even in car-loving Germany, the share of young households without cars increased from 20 percent to 28 percent between 1998 and 2008. “That car-driving rates have stopped growing and in many cases are declining in most economically developed nations is unquestionable,” noted a European Union report in 2017. “Furthermore, it is accepted that the greatest change in driving rates is amongst the young, especially young men, who also are increasingly not learning how to drive.” Perhaps this is due to a wider trend of young people delaying life choices. But it seems unlikely that they will take to driving later. Evidence from Britain suggests that those who learn to drive in their late twenties drive 30 percent less than those who learn a decade earlier.

What has caused this change of heart? Peak-car theorists attribute it to several overlapping factors. Most people now live in cities, most vehicle miles are driven in cities rather than rural areas, and the decline in driving is chiefly a decline in urban driving. The cost and hassle of car ownership has increased as traffic congestion has increased and cities have introduced congestion charging zones and pedestrianized parts of city centers and made parking scarcer and more expensive. For many urbanites, but particularly the young, cars are no longer regarded as essential, as smartphones let them shop and socialize online. The steady shift toward e-commerce also means cars are needed for fewer shopping trips. And when a car is needed, for a weekend away or to help a friend move house, car-sharing and rental services are readily accessible.

In recent years restrictions on car use in cities have become more severe, with the closure of some roads, or some areas, to private cars altogether. This has even been the case in car-loving America, as shown by the closures to private cars of Market Street in San Francisco and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, to make more room for public transport. Some cities have announced that they will ban nonelectric cars altogether in the 2030s or 2040s, to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions. Such moves are sometimes decried as a “war on the car.” But even many motorists now support them: a survey of ten thousand people carried out in 2017 in ten European capital cities, for example, found that 63 percent of residents owned a car, but 84 percent said they would like to see fewer cars on the roads in their city. And just as car ownership has become less convenient, alternatives to car use — ride-hailing, bike-sharing, and other mobility services — have proliferated. Travel-planning apps also make public transport a more attractive option, by showing when buses, trains, or trams will arrive, and how to combine them to complete a journey. But the arrival of those alternatives seems merely to have accelerated what was, in Western countries at least, an existing trend that had been going on for some years.

The coronavirus pandemic seems likely, on balance, to accelerate it further. Fear of contagion has discouraged use of public transport and prompted some people to commute by car instead. But this seems unlikely to herald a global boom in car sales. Evidence from Asia suggests that the risk of transmission on public transport can be managed with appropriate use of masks, thermal scanners, and staggering of journeys to reduce crowding. The pandemic has also encouraged more people to adopt e-commerce and teleworking, which substitute for car journeys and are likely to persist, to some extent, after the pandemic has passed. KPMG, a consultancy, predicts that the pandemic will result in a world of “fewer trips, fewer miles, and fewer cars.” Commuting and shopping, the company notes, account for 40 percent of miles driven in America, and the pandemic-induced boosts to e-commerce and teleworking will have “powerful and enduring” effects, reducing the number of vehicles on American roads by 7 million to 14 million. And cities have taken the opportunity provided by lockdown to reclaim street space from cars, with road closures, the creation of new bike lanes, and the introduction of wider sidewalks. In many cases these changes are expected to become permanent. That may encourage more people to try bikes, scooters, and walking, while further discouraging the use of cars. More generally, the pandemic has provided a glimpse of a world that is less dependent on cars and shown that dramatic changes to living and working habits are possible and can quickly be implemented.

In short, the tide would seem to be turning against the car, in particular in cities, where the cost of car ownership is increasingly onerous. A further shift is about to tip the scales still further, by making alternatives — from buses and trains to ride hailing and bike sharing — even more attractive. Because for the first time, thanks to the smartphone, they can now all be stitched together to create a far more compelling alternative to the car.

Excerpted from A Brief History of Motion: From the Wheel, to the Car, to What Comes Next. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2021 by Tom Standage.


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