We Are Approaching Peak Car Use

Many major cities have seen a decline in driving over the past few years. The reasons for this are varied, but if it's a continuing trend, it's going to mean drastic changes for the way we shape our cities.

Sao Paulo traffic

Even major oil companies admit that we are reaching peak oil—the point when the maximum rate of petroleum production is reached and begins to go into an unstoppable decline. But one thing could, at least somewhat, mitigate that problem. We may have also reached peak car usage in our major cities.

A study (PDF) from the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute says that many cities—including Vienna, Zurich, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Houston—have already seen a decline in car usage between 1995 and 2005. Driving rates in the U.S. did rise in 2010 by 0.7%, but the study's authors believe a number of factors could come together to decrease our overall car use: The first is that cities are hitting what's known as the Marchetti wall. Most people don't like having to travel more than an hour each way to work, and cities tend to not get larger than one hour via car in every direction. The growth of public transport and the reversal of urban sprawl have also played a role, as more people in concentrated areas leads to more central shopping locations. Cities have also seen the growth of a culture of urbanism, resulting in more people who enthusiastically take public transportation, walk, and ride bikes. There's also, of course, the rise in fuel prices, which is probably the largest factor.

If all of these factors actually do cause a dramatic decline in car usage, city planners will have to think more about factoring light rail, buses, cycling, and walking routes into their plans. The study's authors speculate:

Traffic engineers will need to fundamentally change their traffic models and their assumption that increasing road capacity is their main raison d’etre. Road diets and traffic calming will become the skill they need to lead with rather than being pushed into....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.

There's just one caveat: The study only looked at car usage patterns in Europe, North America, and Australia. In rapidly developing countries like India and China, car use is likely to grow for the foreseeable future. So while peak car use may be an an important factor for urban planners to consider, it isn't a reason to stop searching for alternatives to fossil fuels.

[Image: Wikipedia]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Rimaye

    Kudos to Ariel on a great article. Just one thing, though: city planners *have* been thinking about factoring light rail, buses, cycling, and walking routes into plans for a long time. But given political realities, that hasn't often translated into final plans or initiatives until the last decade or so. I am a planner, so I should know, but don't take my word for it: just Google "complete streets" or see what San Francisco is doing with real-time pricing of parking spaces and you'll get some idea of where things are in the profession. And traffic engineers are a whole other ball of wax - they've just starting to come around to the idea that you can't build your way out of congestion with more highways.

  • David Esrati

    Building more roads or trains- or insisting on more fuel efficient cars- won't fix the systemic problem which is sprawl. Instead of giving tax credits for businesses to relocate- which forces communities to engage in bidding wars- we should create a walk to work tax credit: http://esrati.com/?p=95
    Only if we change our behaviors is there hope to stop the mad waste of fuel, time and money.

  • Jim Jonze

    Of course Oil companies are claiming we are reaching peak oil, it is in their best interests.  If we have reached our maximum capacity for oil production, any future oil will be worth more money.  The truth is that oil producers are finding oil in more places all over the world, and even in disused dry wells. 
    You shouldn't state such a disputed idea as a fact. 

  • Edwin Drake

    To Jim Jonze: I can't believe you actually made this ridiculous statement when you said to Ariel Schwartz (the journalist who wrote this news piece):  "You shouldn't state such a disputed idea as a fact," (you said that to her in reference to Peak Oil).  Peak Oil is NOT "a disputed idea." It's a fact. I have been researching Peak Oil for 3 years now, and I do a Google search every single day for the latest news articles and blog items about Peak Oil. (So I have been reading on the internet about Peak Oil every single day for the past 3 years straight.) And it has only been in the past 2 weeks that in my daily readings I have repeatedly been finding article after article all over the internet where reader/commenters are making the insipidly untruthful claim that Peak Oil is supposedly either "disputed" or "disproved" or "debunked" or "discredited," etc. Again and again I keep reading such comments. And this has only arisen during the past 2 weeks. I cannot draw any other conclusion but to assume that this MUST be an orchestrated disinformation campaign. (Perhaps triggered by the recent New York Times article which rightfully declared shale gas to be a giant Ponzi scheme.) And you are either one of the deliberate disinformants, or merely an unknowing duple.  Regardless of which end of the sadly-wrong spectrum of this disinformation campaign you fall into, you are VERY wrong in saying that it's the oil companies who are claiming we have reached Peak Oil. The oil companies are in fact the staunchest deniers of Peak Oil. It is not at all in their best interests to sound the alarm. And the reason they don't want people  and/or governmental leaders and/or policy makers to be aware of Peak Oil is because when it comes to the general principle behind "supply and demand," most people are not even remotely aware of the "luxury/choice corollary" to "supply and demand." Specifically the "luxury/choice corollary" states that classic S&D only applies to choices and/or luxuries, but NOT to uncircumventable necessities. And because oil is indeed an uncircumventable necessity with no alternative choices in sight, the normal rules of S&D don't apply here.  To illustrate: when a luxury gets scarce, the price goes up, and poorer people stop buying it, and richer people might keep on with it only for as long as it suits some perceived need or utility. But when a necessity gets scarce, and then the price (likewise) goes up, people of ALL stripes (rich or poor) will likewise stop buying it. Instead they will simply look for a replacement (they will exercise the power of "choice"). But the brutal truth about oil is that there is no replacement for it. Oil is a very special kind of a necessity which (just like oxygen and water) enjoys the rare quality of being both unimpeachable and uncircumventable. The "choice" opt-out just plain isn't available for us as far as oil goes. So we're stuck with it. And when I say that "we" are stuck, I am saying it's the whole 6.5 billion of us who are stuck. And the oil companies would like very much for our stuck-ness to stay that way (status quo). The only way we (the whole human race) could possibly get un-stuck from oil is if we (humanity) embarked upon a major push to somehow find a replacement for oil -- and THAT is exactly what the oil companies do not want us (the world) to do. If we did, that would put oil in the same category as 8-track cassette tapes: a relic from the past that people laugh about.  Peak Oil is very real. I have 3 years of diligent study under my belt to attest to that. The best news source on the web for getting a better handle on the dire reality of Peak Oil is a web site called The Oil Drum Dot Com.  Also, the free video series called The Crash Course by Chris Martenson is a gold mine of understanding.  And I now leave you with my all-time favorite set of two quotes on Peak Oil: FIRST QUOTE: "This is an emergency far worse than World War I and World War II put together." --Virgin Airlines CEO Sir Richard Branson, in an interview for the CNN one-hour news special about Peak Oil called "We Were Warned: Out of Gas," broadcast June 2007.  SECOND QUOTE: "This is the first scenario I've seen where I question the survivability of mankind." -- Richard Rainwater, in the Fortune Magazine article entitled "The Rainwater Prophecy," published December 2005.  ~Edwin Drake~ PS: Jim Jonze. Be forewarned that the press does NOT like being messed with. If this IS a disinformation campaign that I've been sniffing out these past 2 weeks, the press will fight back with a vengeance against those who seek to perpetrate it. Hell hath no fury like an indignant and ticked off press corps.  

  • AndreasLarsson

    Since the 80's the world has consumed more oil than it has produced. This is no conspiracy by the oil industry. The world reached peak crude oil 2005 or 2006 (depending on which data you look at). The peak for crude + condensate is about now. Peak oil is hard fact, so there is nothing to dispute. People who dismiss or dispute peak oil most likely doesn't understand what it's all about.

  • Robin LeBlanc

    The author here implies that planners need to start thinking about walkable, bike-able communities with good public transportation (where applicable) because people are driving less.  However, I would argue that this needs to happen in order to encourage fewer cars.  The shift is already happening - slowly, but in the right direction, and the movement to plan for getting from point A to point B without having to use a car is gaining momentum already.  Even tiny towns (by no means urban!) here in Northern New England are adding sidewalks, crosswalks and bike lanes to encourage folks to leave the car behind for certain trips - not only good for less CO2 in the air and less fuel consumed, but better for the physical and mental well-being of the citizens ...

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I'm glad to see this. A mass transit / walking / biking culture is more energy efficient, better for health, and better at creating community and contact. Bring it on.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Management Coach to C-Level Consultants