Peak car: where are we moving to?

Like a sleek convertible cresting a windy mountain pass and carrying its momentum down the other side, so goes the overall trend in driving. Over the last decade, at least in North America, people are driving less. Building throughout the 1990s to a peak in the mid-2000s, VMT (vehicle miles traveled) has maxed out and is decreasing, at different rates depending on demographics and locations. Some people are driving shorter distances, some are substituting car trips for other modes, and some are not driving at all.

What is the driving force behind this peak, and subsequent reduction in driving? Moreover, is it a good thing?

There are several reasons, depending on where you live and how old you are. In vibrant, fast-growing cities such as Vancouver, local policy favours building infrastructure and developments for pedestrians, cyclists, and public transit ahead of motor vehicles. Incredibly, despite some antagonism towards cyclists and other “alternative” modes, Vancouver is a success story. ¬†Although Vancouver’s population has grown considerably over the past two decades, it is the only city in Canada where the average car commuting time has not increased over the same time period. Vancouverites (motorists included) are able to move around as efficiently, and often moreso, than in the early 90s.

What about age? Younger demographics (16-24) today are less likely to hold a driver’s license than in previous generations. Cost is a consideration: vehicles are more expensive to maintain and operate now, and younger peoples’ incomes are stagnant or decreasing, compared to previous generations. While some young people may choose to live in transit-oriented areas (which are often also amenable to cycling and walking) for environmental reasons, there are also social benefits, as these areas have an abundance of cafes, bars, restaurants, parks and other areas for socializing.

This reduction in driving is beneficial in many ways. Alternative modes of transportation (transit, cycling, walking) consume less energy and are more environmentally sustainable (both from reduced fuel use and more dense development). They also increase opportunities for exercise and social interaction. After all, it’s much easier to chat with your neighbours when you’re on the bus or walking around, than when you’re whipping past in a car.

And there’s an even broader implication: although people are driving less overall, they are still able to go about their daily lives – work, chores and leisure – much as they did before cars became widespread in the post-WWII era.

Shouldn’t the goal be to allow people to move around freely, whether they choose to use a car or not? After all, prioritizing transit is “not about making it hard to drive, but about giving people options other than driving their car.”¬†Shouldn’t people feel empowered to use the mode that best suits their needs, rather than feeling compelled to drive? Shouldn’t we be aiming to move people, rather than cars?