Wednesday 13 July 2011

Believe it or not, we're driving less than ever

The Age
Stephen Cauchi
July 10, 2011

City driving in Australia and other developed countries peaked in 2004 and has been declining since.

A paper by Curtin University academics Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy, Peak Car Use: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence, cites soaring oil prices, traffic congestion, a preference for inner-city living, public transport growth, an ageing population, and more crowded cities for pushing people away from cars. ''Peak car use is a major historical discontinuity that was largely unpredicted by most urban professionals and academics,'' write the authors.

''The peak car use phenomenon suggests we may now be witnessing the demise of automobile dependence in cities … the phenomenon of peak car use appears to have set in to the cities of the developed world.''

Peak car use - which is measured as vehicle kilometres travelled per capita - had occurred in all major Australian cities in 2004 in line with the world trend, the authors noted. In 2004, Melbourne's car use peaked at 12,410 passenger kilometres per capita. In 2009, that had dropped to 11,050.

Professor Newman told The Sunday Age that rising oil prices, traffic congestion and a growing taste for inner-city living were the main factors.
''$US80 a barrel [for oil] was very fundamental and we crossed that point in 2004 and it's been going up ever since,'' he said.

''The fuel price in the next 10 years is going to be a very strong driver. The International Energy Agency has just concluded that you need to find another four Saudi Arabias otherwise the price will continue to rise. They're not going to do that.''
He said that cars powered by electricity or hydrogen could reverse the trend of peak car use, but ''they've been very slow coming in''.
Building more freeways to reduce traffic congestion would not work, said Professor Newman.

''They don't make sense economically and they fill so quickly … you can't even build them in America any more. The last new freeway in Los Angeles was 25 years ago, the last big freeway to be built in any US city was the Katy in Houston and it cost a billion US dollars a mile.

''They're financially and politically exhausted. They're not possible to build any more.''

Funding freeways privately will not work either, according to the paper: ''Many recent toll roads in Australia have gone bankrupt because numbers of cars have just not materialised in the way the models predicted.''

The third biggest factor mitigating against car use, said Professor Newman, was the ''growing culture of urbanism among the young''.

''It's particularly evident among young Americans and young Australians. They actively prefer using public transport because you can wire up your devices - your iPod, computer, phone - in a way that you can't do when you're driving. You're free and flexible if you're using public transport but you're not free and flexible if you're in a car.''

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