the beginning of the end of car travel growth?

Melinda Burns in Miller-McCune profiles a new study with some surprising news:

A study of eight industrialized countries, including the United States, shows that seemingly inexorable trends — ever more people, more cars and more driving — came to a halt in the early years of the 21st century, well before the recent escalation in fuel prices. It could be a sign, researchers said, that the demand for travel and the demand for car ownership in those countries has reached a saturation point.

The study is by Lee Schipper and my former colleague Adam Millard-Ball, both now at Stanford. Car ownership is slowing down too:

There are signs of saturation in vehicle ownership, too, at about 700 cars per 1,000 people in the U.S. — more cars than licensed drivers — and about 500 cars per 1,000 people in Japan and most of the European countries. Car ownership has declined in the U.S. since 2007 because of the recession.

It will be interesting to see how much car ownership rebounds as the US emerges from recession, which of course depends on when and how quickly that emergence occurs.  There are certainly some signals that the sustainable-urbanist alternative to car ownership — urban life dependent on a suite of options including transit, cycling, walking, and car-sharing — is holding its value through the recession better than car-dependent life is doing.  If so, we might never see car ownership rebound to the 2007 rate.

Car ownership is still rising in the developing world, of course, but Schipper doubts that can continue.

“My basic thesis is, ‘There ain’t room on the road,’” he said. “You can’t move in Jakarta or Bangkok or any large city in Latin America or in any city in the wealthy part of China. I think Manila takes the prize. Yes, fuel economy is really important, and yes, hybrid cars will help. But even a car that generates no CO2 still generates a traffic problem.

“Sadly, what is going to restrain car use the most is that you can’t move.”

Well, if developing-world cities weren't growing horizontally, creating new space for gridlock, I'd be more confident in that call.  But it's definitely encouraging. 

9 Responses to the beginning of the end of car travel growth?

  1. Michael D. Setty January 4, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    The price of gasoline any potential rebound in auto ownership rates in the U.S. will determine this, methinks.
    It also will be amusing to see the new Tea Party Republican Congress in the U.S. hopefully twist in the wind of public opinion while they try to cut transit funding in the face of skyrocketing gasoline prices. Certainly we will hear more “drill, baby, drill” nonsense, too.

  2. JJJ January 4, 2011 at 5:21 pm #

    I think a huge part of it is the technology bit.
    30 years ago, if you were 17 and wanted to be social…you had to drive to hang out. Now? You can skype, facebook, play your friends online at games etc. There’s no social stigma to staying home and playing medal of honor online against your buddies.
    And for when you do leave the house? Driving the car requires 100% of your attention. Letting someone else drive (the train) gives you time to text, read blogs, etc. Every time I ride the subway, it’s amazing to look around and see 90% of the people in the train using some form of technology. The other 10% are reading the free paper.
    But that takes time to develop. If you live in suburb A and work in suburb B, you wont start taking the once an hour bus. You’re also less likely to pack up your furniture and fit it into a smaller urban home.
    But if you just finished college and entered the job market, you may be more willing to move to a city where there is a subway system. And you won’t have a dining room set that decided how big your house needs to be.
    People always talk about how “americans love to drive”. It’s simply not true. Tell someone who drives 100 miles a day that you can give them a free chauffeur for a year. Trust me, they won’t say no. Sure, it’s enjoyable to drive up the windy mountain road….but for day-to-day drives, almost everyone would prefer to have someone (or a robot) take the wheel while they actually used the time productively.

  3. Alon Levy January 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    JJJ, I don’t think it’s the socialization bit. Before cars were widespread, if you were 17 and wanted to be social, you’d walk to hang out with your friends in your dense urban neighborhood.

  4. Brent January 4, 2011 at 6:22 pm #

    Somewhat related, a recent “New Yorker” had a long article about increased efficiency causing more energy use, as people consume the efficiency by, say, buying two cars or driving sportier ones. The article didn’t discuss the practical effect of too many cars, nor the impact of more roads, nor how driving time affects driving habits. The author instead seemed to believe that fuel consumption will continue climbing, perhaps forever.

  5. JJJ January 4, 2011 at 9:37 pm #

    Alon, before cars were widespread? Why does that matter. VMT increased in the 50s, 60s, 70s 80s and 90s…. all eras lacking in the portable technology sector, but big on suburban living.

  6. Leigh Holcombe January 4, 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    Considering the level of sprawl that many of the cities of the developing nations are experiencing, it’s not surprising that their use of cars is also increasing. And of course, more cars leads to more wealth and more development, which leads to more cars.

  7. Alon Levy January 5, 2011 at 9:48 am #

    JJJ, it matters, because VMT also increased in the 20s and 30s.

  8. CroMagnon January 5, 2011 at 2:26 pm #

    It seems almost inevitable that we would reach a saturation point in automobile use and ownership. It would be strange if we didn’t. There are only so many people to spend so much time driving a car through so much space.
    Unfortunately, our (the US at least) economy has been dependent on our ever increasing automobile ownership and usage and roadbuilding that to enter a flat or declining auto use is going to require a potentially LONG period of adjustment or “correction” as the dismal science people say (or maybe it’s just the finance people…)

  9. Nicholas Barnard January 5, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    JJJ – its funny, but since I sold my car, (I’ve moved to using a combination of transit, walking, car-sharing, and taxis, in roughly that order.) I enjoy driving much more.
    Sure there are times when I’ve got a Zipcar just to run an errand and driving is a chore, but much of the time I really enjoy it. (Okay and grabbing a sportier car is fun too. I’ll admit to being incredibly unenvironmental and grabbing a Volvo S40 to just driving around the city all night for the fun of it…)