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Peak Car: Are we getting out of cars?


There was a time when all cars ran on combustion engines, we all desired to own one and we drove our own exclusively. All that is changing. Private car sales in all western countries will plateau and plummet. Transport will transform. Peak Car is the time when many people will finally get out of their cars.

Driving less but buying more cars

Peak Car is the term used to express that moment just before decline, when people travel fewer kilometres in a car. Already in France, Germany, Japan, and Great Britain this is starting to occur. But in Australia, thanks to a 1% population increase each year, traffic is still growing at 1.3%.

While we are driving less, more people are buying more cars and driving them.

Car ownership in Australia has increased faster than the population. Sydney has the lowest level of car ownership at 55.3 cars per 100 people, compared to Melbourne’s 61.7 per 100. But car ownership is still 2.8% up from 53.8 per 100 people ten years ago.

Why are we driving less?

In spite of this, we are driving less often and one reason is increasing congestion.

According to Marchetti’s constant, wherever people live or in spite of improvements in transport, they spend roughly 30 minutes commuting one way. Thanks to heavy traffic, the distance Sydneysiders can travel in 30 minutes is shrinking. It means they are more likely to seek alternatives. For example:

  • Wireless technologies can substitute for travel
  • Working at home
  • Growth in public transport use
  • Car-sharing.

Young people are less likely to get a vehicle licence at all – they live at home longer and share their parents’ vehicles or use Uber. Others prefer to live near where they work and walk or cycle.

Automaker vision

If you ask the automakers, there is no Peak Car. The future of transport is car-sharing, large fleets powered by batteries and self-driving cars. Their vision is to transform from manufacturers to mobility companies. They will own and maintain large fleets of all kinds of vehicles and manage and update vehicle software.

BMW estimates all mobility services will account for a third of all trips within a decade. (One wag said BMW ought to stand for “Biking, Metro, Walking”. Smart. ) BMW has merged DriveNow with Daimler’s car2go to create a one-stop shop where you can ring taxis and locate chargers and parking spots for electric cars.

Volkswagen claims it is now a “device and software company” and to deal with this, it needs to “reinvent the automobile.” Volkswagen’s new “We” label is designed to package up mobile applications for VW customers of regular or autonomous cars. With one sign-on, they will enjoy electronic payment for parking, in-car package delivery, fuel-price tracking and local deals from retailers.

The future we need

No matter how many electric or autonomous cars are on the road, they are still cars. Is the future imagined by automakers the kind of future we need?

The NSW government’s own Future Transport Strategy 2056 report claims well-planned centres and cities will shift us from private cars to public transport, walking and cycling. By 2056, 70% of us will live within 30 minutes of where we work using public transport or active modes.

This future strategy sits awkwardly with the state government’s frenzy of motorway planning and building in Sydney. Spending is directed to public transport, such as light rail, but is small in comparison to the massive roads budget.

As our love affair with road vehicles continues, Peak Car may be further off than we think.

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Corrina Baird

Writer and Researcher, greenslips.com.au

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years in financial services and over 8 years with greenslips.com.au, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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