Peak Car might be coming but some car-dependents look incurable

The last few years have seen considerable discussion about the possibility that long-established trends in car ownership and use are changing, and that we may even have reached the point of ‘Peak Car’ - at least in developed economies like the UK.

Might the latest figures on both car sales and car ownership be significant in that regard? The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), the industry body that collates facts and stats on vehicle usage, revealed that UK car ownership fell by 0.2% to 35,023,652 in 2021, after a similar drop in 2020 - the first successive annual drops in ownership in more than a century.

The last time ownership fell in consecutive years was during the First World War.

New UK car registrations meanwhile fell by 20.6% last month to 124,394 units, in the second weakest May since 1992.

However, special factors were in play, as the pandemic meant many consumers were not in car buying mode, and in any case often unable to obtain the new vehicle they had chosen owing to supply issues hampering manufacturers across the world, with the market 32.3% below the 2019 pre-pandemic level despite reputedly strong order books.

The hangover from the COVID-19 pandemic has now been joined by the surge in energy prices and the cost-of-living crisis which is likely to see many people hang on to their cars for longer, or not be inclined to replace them if they pack up or fail the MoT. The average British car is now 8.7 years old, more than a year older than a decade ago.

Changes in vehicle ownership and use have two major implications - for transport and travel patterns, and the not insubstantial impact on the automotive manufacturing, distribution and financial and service sectors, that are associated with what Mrs Thatcher was reputed to have described as “the Great Car Economy”.

It would be very interesting to see more detailed data on which individuals and households are changing their attitude to car ownership - by the age of individuals, socio-economic status, stage of life reached and geographic location.

There are some indications that more urban dwellers are dispensing with second and third cars in households, and younger individuals in cities not now wanting (or affording) to own a car at all.

Indeed, is the phenomenon of Peak Car a trend that could be emerging everywhere - or might it just be limited to “peak urban car’?

Life - and the matter of mobility- is very different in urban areas to other parts of the country. In the big cities and certain densely populated parts of metropolitan areas, plenty of alternatives are available to private car travel - public transport, cycling and walking over relatively short distances to reach work, school, shopping and leisure destinations, and mixed-use neighbourhoods in which to live with good local facilities relatively nearby.

It’s not the same everywhere - certainly not in rural and more recently built sprawling suburban areas, or even smaller towns that cannot support good bus services.

Those who talk about the problem of car dependency tend to speak as though the alternatives are readily available to everyone. But access to trains and buses is poor or non-existent for very many people, and the distances they need to travel do not lend themselves practically to cycling and walking, let alone carrying shopping or pushing small children, or coping with all weathers and conditions.

Provision of realistic alternatives to the car is a major hole in transport policy in many parts of the country- and not one that there is much prospect of filling anytime soon.

Car dependency may be a fact, but is not necessarily an addiction to be kicked, but a fundamental element of many peoples’ lives.

To realistically help people kick the habit, new kinds of public transport or shared use of vehicles will be required. Extensive services of home delivery - themselves generating substantial new vehicle miles - and provision of more easily accessible local facilities and services would be other very necessary elements.

Hectoring or shaming people to change their behaviour without considering the practicalities is not a productive policy option. It is a fact of life that many people are “living off the grid” of currently available sustainable non car options. Peak Car for them may be many years away.

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