Seeing the back of the car

Following our article last week, ‘Population density puts the squeeze on cars’, we came across an in-depth article from The Economist this week, titled ‘Seeing the back of the car’.

The article explores how in the developed world, people seem to be driving less than they used to, with both car ownership and distances driven seeming to reach saturation. Australian research published in March 2012 shows that 20 countries of the rich world have topped out in terms of ownership, distance driven, and a number of other factors.

A number of factors may be contributing to this: young people starting to drive later in life, rising fuel prices and the influence of the internet as a replacement for real-world experiences and shopping.  Whilst this could be offset by older people hanging on to their licenses for longer, there does seem to be a trend towards the younger generation viewing car ownership as tying them down – demonstrated by the popularity of car sharing schemes with this demographic.

Perhaps most basic, though, is that in terms of urban living the car has become a victim of its own success. In 1994 the physicist Cesare Marchetti argued that people budget an average travel time of around one hour getting to work; they are unwilling to spend more. For decades cars allowed this budget to go farther. But as suburbs grow and congestion increases most cities eventually hit a “sprawl wall” of too-long commutes beyond which they will not spread far. After that, it appears, a significant number of people start to move back towards the city centre. In America, where over 50% of the population lives in suburbs, more than half the nation’s 51 largest cities are seeing more growth in the core than outside it, according to William Frey at the Brookings Institution.

The implications for car makers is that markets are less easy to find in the developed world, with sales coming from replacement rather than growth. A more radical solution is technological solutions that allow people to drive less, with driverless cars allowing their occupants to use their time more efficiently.

Perhaps the biggest change is that the culture of the car has shifted. The nostalgia and freedom once emotively associated with the car are wavering, and people are looking for other ways to experience their environments.

Read the article in full on The Economist here.

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