Globe and Mail Investigates 'Peak Car'

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 24, 2011

The Globe and Mail asks: Are we reaching 'peak car'?

Experts say our love affair with the automobile is ending, and that could change much more than how we get around - it presents both an opportunity and an imperative to rethink how we build cities, how governments budget and even the contours of the political landscape.

Evidence has been building for some time that the rate of driving in North America, by a number of measures, is in decline, especially among young people.

The decline predates the oil price spike of 2008, and the market crash and recession that followed it.

As the suburban build-out reaches its endgame, the false economy of owning cars and driving everywhere begins to assert itself against all the subsidies that have helped it along for the past several decades.

Finding themselves caught in an uncomfortable tangle of urban sprawl, population growth and plain individual inconvenience, people, one by one, are just quietly opting out.

Adie Tomer, an infrastructure researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., was one of the first to spot the trend. "To me, it suggests we've started to hit this wall as far as how far and how much people are willing to drive," he says.

Another important factor in the decline may be the shift in our network connections from radio - a one-way broadcast medium that is passively consumed by drivers - to the wireless web - a two-way medium that requires participation.

The networks of driving and radio support and reinforce each other, whereas the networks of driving and the web get in each other's way. Suddenly walking and transit provide a much better fit for people looking to stay connected through wireless devices.

This helps to explain the sharp declines in driving among young adults, who increasingly don't bother to get a driver's licence until their mid-20s.

At the same time, aging Boomers are also reducing their car use, through a combination of retirement and relocation into walkable communities.

The lesson for city planners is to discontinue "the policy distortions that encourage auto use", in the words of Todd Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

One conclusion from policy experts such as Mr. Kenworthy and his colleague Peter Newman, at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth, is that planners and developers will have to change their styles, becoming "much more adept at re-urbanizing suburbs and centres than in scattering suburbs around the urban fringe," as they wrote in a paper this spring.

In suburbs and cities alike, the demand will rise for density: "Peak car use will generate a growing rationale for removal of high-capacity roads and conversion of space to support transit, walking and cycling and the urbanism of the new city."

Finally, the Globe article suggests that a migration of the political centre of gravity back toward the centre (literally) will blur the sharp political dividing lines between city and suburb.

As denizens of (denser) suburbs and city dwellers each come to define themselves less by choices of wheels – and find more common ground on, for example, light rail – the polarization between centre and sprawl that affects other levels of politics may begin to ease too.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By Win-Win (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2011 at 10:09:24

More room for bicycles, more room for trucks!

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By young driver (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 02:54:27

One of the big reasons that young people are not driving is that they cannot afford it. The cost of insurance for young people, especially males is prohibitive. The cost of maintaining a car have increased over the years. It is much more difficult for the average person to do any kind of repair or maintenance on a modern vehicle than it was 25 years ago. When my friends and I were young we were capable of doing a lot of the work on our cars ourselves. Today with need for very specialized and therefore very expensive tools that is no longer the case for most people. 25 years ago my best friend and I took the donour motor out of a car, then took the dead motor out of my car, and lastly installed the donour motor into my car. We started at 7:00 on a Saturday morning and used my car to take our girlfriends out on a date that evening. All this was possible in my backyard using a stout tree limb as hoisting point. I think the most sophisticated piece of equipment we used was a multimeter.

Young people today are not driving because they do not want to drive, they are not driving because they cannot afford it.

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted October 25, 2011 at 04:15:41 in reply to Comment 70857

Excellent comment.

And it gets back to my belief that there will always be 'Personal Transport Devices', as there have always been. I can't tell you the configuration or the fuel, but I can tell you there'll be a market. And that's maybe the most important element.

Unless we go to Hell in a hand-basket, of course.

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By Bon Mot (anonymous) | Posted October 25, 2011 at 07:12:05 in reply to Comment 70861

Even then, it'll probably be "Hell in a bike basket," which would presumably be one of those numbers with the plastic daisies front-and-centre.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted October 25, 2011 at 17:28:20

Yeah, but we'll always have cars, and people will never stop driving....

Seriously, though, for a young male,the financial burden of maintaining a car is incredible. If a penny saved is a penny earned, then not owning a car is a lot like having a second job, but a lot more pleasant.

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