We have reached ‘peak car’ in much of the western world. Now is the time to think how to create innovative government policies beyond building infrastructure for cars.
‘If policy-makers are confident that car-use is waning they can focus on improving lives and infrastructure areas already blighted by traffic rather than catering for future growth.’ – Economist 2012
Prenzlauer Allee, Berlin
In the month following the first Danish congestion commission we consider what are the questions raised in terms of making the city more multi modal, as this month ‘peak car’ was reported by the Economist and km travelled in steady decline in the OECD is set to continue.
The average number of miles driven in a car in Europe and Japan has gone into decline suggesting that car-use has peaked in many developed societies. This trend is shown in a number of metrics pre-dating the economic crisis, decline in km travelled, a shift in the age of license holders towards older generations and a decrease in car sales.
If car-use is declining and multi-modal transit is coming into a more centralized political focus then how should we be helping governments change their policies accordingly? Having been advocating for cities for people ‘from the sidelines’ in a sense, from a marginal position, we are thrilled that the reality of a decline provides an opportunity for governments to think beyond this. We must turn our attention to supporting governments to innovate around this opportunity, to make sure the collective benefit as much as possible that we ‘lock in’ the benefits of declining car use and increase quality of life in our cities.
Average km travelled by cars 1990 -2010 and Licensed drivers as % of age group 1983 and 2010. Economist October 2012
Potential sites of policy innovation for OECD countries;
1. Re-population of central urban areas
Historically, one hour has been the pain threshold for commuting. The car and freeway construction has extended the distance one can travel in one hour but this is slowing as we approach the ‘sprawl wall’. As lifestyle choices move away from the ‘lifestyle house’ towards the ‘lifestyle city’ or neighborhood we need to seize the opportunity to invite people back to the central city with good affordable housing policies.
2. Car manufacturers moment of innovation for the future
From improving fuel efficiency to electric cars, manufacturing companies have already began to innovate automobile hardware. Now the struggle will be to find new markets in the developed and to find models that re-explore how private transit can be shared and how public transit can be personalized.
3. Government tax structures
Governments will have to re-think how much economic growth they depend on from car sales per se and look more widely at the industry for growth and innovation. In addition how they invest in infrastructure needs change, at the moment most governments work towards a model where car growth is infinite, while in the US infrastructure is partly funded by gasoline tax. If people buy less gas there is less revenue available for improving infrastructure.
4. Urban Planning
Mainstream urban planning has for half a century focused on the car, will this be the sea-change shift to focusing on people?
The Danish suburbs
Despite having the world’s highest taxes on cars, private vehicle ownership has been steadily increasing in Denmark at a rate of 3% per year. Denmark is an 85% urbanized country so this growth can be accounted for largely by the suburbs as inner city journey shares have a balanced modal split. The Danish congestion commission brought together a very diverse group of interested parties and workshopped around ideas or alternatives to congestion charging. Yet in this discussion focus did shift to the suburbs, and how to support multi modal mobility there. Policy innovation that integrates urban planning issues with wider government considerations needs to happen to create a joined up approach to mobility futures as the centre ground consent that our shared future is not a car-dominated one.