Something weird is happening," says Phil Goodwin, professor of transport policy at the University of the West of England. "Car use in Britain is on the decline, but no one is exactly sure why." Goodwin says we have reached "peak car". If he is right, this has important implications for how we design our towns and cities, and where public money gets allocated.
Goodwin has been building his argument for peak car in a series of articles in Local Transport Today. His evidence includes 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 per cent to 38 per cent, and for 21- to 29-year-olds, the number fell from 75 per cent to 66 per cent. Also, there has been a decline in private transport's share of trips from 50 per cent in 1993 to 41 per cent in 2008. And, according to Lynn Sloman, director of Transport for Quality of Life, between 2004 and 2008, car trips per person went down by 9 per cent and car distance per person by 5 per cent.
Of course, this doesn't amount to incontrovertible evidence of the beginning of the end for cars – it could be a momentary blip, an aberration – but it would be foolish not to have this debate now, given the paucity of Government funds, and given the long planning horizon of most public works.
The Department for Transport (DfT) is working on the assumption that between 2003 and 2025 traffic across Britain will grow by 25 per cent and traffic in London will grow by 23 per cent.
"If the future is going to be on a different trajectory to the path predicted by the Department for Transport, then that has a very big impact on what types of infrastructure are invested in," says Sloman. Over the next few years, Sloman, Goodwin and the Institute for Public Policy Research will be poring over National Travel Survey data in order to "dissect the peak". They will analyse the national aggregate figures to try to understand who is reducing car-use, where it is happening and the types of trips that are being reduced.
The science fiction writer William Gibson said: "The future has arrived; it's just not evenly distributed." If one thing is clear from an initial analysis of the data, it's that the future has arrived in London.
"The picture for the whole of Britain has been quite stable since the mid-1990s, but London is a very interesting case," says David Metz, visiting professor at the centre for transport studies at University College London. Metz, a former chief scientist at the Department for Transport, explains that the population density of London has been going up, but the number of car trips per day has stayed steady. In other words, car journeys per person are falling. "This reached its peak in the early 1990s, has been declining ever since and it's projected to go on declining as the population keeps growing," says Metz.
It's not clear yet why London and a few other places are experiencing a fall in car-use, but a number of social trends, transport policies and technologies appear to be having a cumulative effect.
One seemingly obvious candidate to explain peak car is the rise of the internet, as the two phenomena began in the early 1990s. 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 per cent reduction in traffic. Only, it's not that straightforward. As Goodwin points out, commuting journeys are a good way of preventing cars from being used during working hours. 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 peak car. Internet shopping has also made a small dent but, again, not a big enough dent 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 UCL's Metz.
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 components as conventional development, 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 and you've got fashionable inner city areas, such as Hoxton and Shoreditch, the heart of digital enterprises. That is all quite helpful in terms of becoming less car-dependent, making more use of public transport, walking and cycling."
There is some evidence that this is happening in Leeds and Manchester, which experienced inner-city decline, leading to low-rent property, then occupied by artists and entrepreneurs. As mentioned before, fewer young people are learning to drive, possibly because of the cost of learning and the steep cost of motor insurance in that age group.
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."
At the other end of the age spectrum, the elderly – the fastest-growing demographic in the UK – have a big incentive to abandon their cars: free bus passes.
Other transport policy is also having an effect. The introduction of controlled parking zones through most of London makes it all but 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 a strong 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, actually, if people are changing their travel behaviour already, perhaps we can support that kind of 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 specifically 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?
"If people are moving back into the inner cities and central areas, then you're getting people choosing to live in areas where the public transport tends to be better and the parking difficulties tend to be worse, and you could easily imagine a virtuous circle," says Goodwin.
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 per cent of Groningen's denizens travel by bicycle – the highest proportion in the West – and the town has seen its rents climb as people clamour to live in this now sought-after place.
"The general view of transport is that mobility increases with income," says Metz. "As incomes grow, everyone travels more and historically this was the case up until the mid-1990s in Britain. However, there is emerging evidence here and in other countries that car use per capita has been flattening off. Growth has been coming to an end. And if that's true generally, it's quite important. It helps in terms of the impact of the transport sector on global warming."
If car-use per capita has peaked and is going to level off or decline, we can start to rethink and redesign our towns and cities so that they become more attractive; and that includes those new towns which were specifically designed with cars in mind.
"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 forever," 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?"
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies