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Page added on July 28, 2011

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The cars that didn’t eat Paris

The cars that didn’t eat Paris thumbnail

It seems everything is peaking these days. You’ve heard of peak oil – the point at which our global oil extraction starts falling. There’s also discussion of peak food, peak wood, peak phosphorous, peak water and peak rare earths.

Now here’s a new one for you: peak cars.

Australians Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy write in the latest issue of World Transport Policy and Practice that we have hit the point of maximum car use. (pdf)

Since the 1960s, they say, the increase in the amount of kilometres travelled in a car per person each year (vehicle kilometres per capita or Vkt) has slowed each decade. In the decade to 2005, in some European cities the use of cars actually went backwards.

The trend is not isolated to the urbanised and urbane European cities. Showing data from US and Australian cities, they demonstrate that this is a widespread phenomenon.

In Australia, car use per capita peaked in 2004. Melburnians were the most motorised with just under 12,500 km travelled in a car per person. Brisbanites used their car the least at about 10,500 km per person. But since 2004, all cities have eased up on their car use.

Perth people (Perthlings?) have dropped their car use the most; down more than 500 Vkt per person in 2008 compared with 2004.

Newman and Kenworthy suggest that there are several factors that have led to this point. The most obvious is the price of petrol, which has skyrocketed in recent years. They also discuss improved public transport plus an ageing population of empty-nesters and younger urban hipsters for whom the inner, rather than outer ‘burbs are more attractive.

But an interesting point is something they call the Marchetti Wall.

They write: “Thomas Marchetti was the first to recognise that all cities have a similar average travel time budget of around one hour. This seems to be biologically based in humans – they don’t like to take more out of their day than an hour just getting to their work and back home. Thus we have applied this to the technology of city building to show that cities always hit the wall when they are ‘one hour wide’.”

Back in the day when we all got around town by walking, villages maxed out at about five or eight kilometres wide. Then when we invented trains, towns grew to about 30 km wide. And with the rise of the automobile, our cities expanded to more than 50 km wide.

Right now, Australian cities sprawl for about 70 km in any direction from the CBD. Accordingly we have fast freeways to funnel us quickly to our destinations. Most people travel for no more than an hour in any direction. But with increasing population, the absolute number of cars on our roads is similarly increasing. Cars are holding up the traffic.

They argue that as we hit this Marchetti Wall, public transport and higher density suburbs become more attractive than urban sprawl and driving to work. It becomes a reinforcing cycle, with inner city suburbs growing in appeal as they become increasingly vibrant and well-serviced by public transport.

The implications for our future cities are clear, they say: we need to prepare for higher density living, with increased spending on public transport. Our highways need not be engineered for future growth as car use levels off.

High-density living has interesting implications our our ability to connect with nature, and may see a rise in ‘nature deficit disorder’. But from an environmental perspective, fewer cars is a good thing. Cars contribute to climate change, air pollution, oil extraction, and resource use. The land needed for roads and parking is considerable, and, as noted by Newman and Kenworthy, cars facilitate urban sprawl.

Cities shaped by cars are a new thing, relatively speaking. Herr Benz only invented his ‘motorwagen’ in 1885, 126 years ago; a period which coincided with massive population growth and the movement away from the land because of the industrial revolution. Our cities, therefore, became car-shaped.

But while many American and Australian cities were founded in this period, most European cities were not. Those cities were shaped by walking and horses. Consequently they are best placed to embrace the decline in car use.

It is certainly too early to sign the death certificate of the car. No one can deny the convenience of a car when you want to get from A to B quickly, in comfort, with large objects, or a blancmange. Even with peak oil, air pollution and climate change, electric vehicles hold promise. Developing countries are following close on the heels of the West and snapping up new cars as fast as they can be made. Cars will be with us for the conceivable future.

But just because we’ve had car-shaped cities for as long as any of us can remember, does not mean this is the only way.

New Yorkers, Londoners and Tokyo residents (Tokyovans?) have very low levels of car ownership relative to the rest of their compatriots, but these cities are some of the most exciting in the world.

Australian cities have only known the car, but as they have started bumping up against limitations to growth, we may have to look to Europe for inspiration.

While the car will certainly be part of our lives in the foreseeable future, if Newman and Kenworthy are right, its glory days may be numbered. Our way of life will need to adapt to keep up with the changing times. Like Europe, the cities of the future will be dominated by trains, trams, bicycles and walking paths.

It’s either that, or a new technology will arrive to stretch our Marchetti boundaries once again.


One Comment on "The cars that didn’t eat Paris"

  1. DC on Thu, 28th Jul 2011 3:58 am 

    Ive seen these guys pushing this claim before. And there argument is still crap. Everyone from Aus to Alabama is still trying to either fix, expand or ‘improve’ roadways, with the idea being that expensive, overbuilt road systems are the answer to all problems. As for the cars themselves, peak cars is just a polite way of saying, ‘People that have lost their jobs and any hope of getting a new one anytime soon drive a lot less then people that havent’.

    People in the western world or China with there imported and recently aquired love affair with endless traffic jams and all the wonderful toxic run-off from cars, have hardly lost any ethusiasm for driveing 50 miles to work, or to there favorite wall-mart. The only thing that has ‘peaked’ in this case, is peoples ability to pay for it…..

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