Image: Nothing But Facts from Wayne Stadler's Flickr Photostream

Have we reached ‘peak car’?  Many pointers in the UK and internationally suggest we have.  There’s been a slow down, even a reverse, in our love affair with the private car.  On average, those of us in high income countries are driving fewer miles, buying fewer cars and getting driving licences at a later age.  This decline in car use appears to be led by younger people, and by young men in particular.

The reasons for this apparent decline are multiple and contested.  They include high costs of driving in times of austerity  (although the trends pre-date the latest recession), better public transport in urban areas that makes cars unnecessary, changes in tax regulations for company cars, the growth of online shopping, policies that deter driving, changes in requirements for a driving licence, and perhaps a growing awareness of the issues of sustainability.  In one study we carried out in London, driving was described as the ‘new smoking’.   Not only have cars simply become no longer necessary in many areas, they are no longer, it seems, the desirable status symbols they once were.

But it may be too soon for the Top Gear presenters to find alternative, and socially useful employment.  In many countries, cars continue to proliferate:  cities are heavily congested, and rural roads overcrowded with speeding traffic. Poor pedestrians – particularly children – pay the price in injuries, pollution, and a diminishing public space in which to play and walk.  Worldwide, traffic injuries went up 46% in the two decades before 2010. Low and middle income countries have 40% of the world’s traffic, but bear the brunt of 90% of the injuries.  Indeed traffic injuries are set to be the 7th leading cause of death worldwide by 2030.

And back in London, the golden Mercs and Lamborghini’s in the West End caught the media eye last year, suggesting your wheels can still signal your wealth.  Cinema adverts are still conjuring up the illusion that the right car will provide the freedom of open roads through stunning scenery.  So, are we rushing to assume that ‘peak car’ is ‘post-car’ by over-interpreting the transport choices of urban millennials, or the delayed licensing of financially challenged young adults?

To find out, we talked to young adults aged 16-21 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who were living in areas outside the metropolitan centres like London with abundant public transport.  In the study, just published in the journal Mobilities, they told us cars were indispensable for getting to work and social life, in rural areas particularly.  However, what they didn’t talk about was the importance of owning cars: access was vital, but ownership wasn’t.  Various communal arrangements were common, from informal lift sharing among friends to complex rotas to get all household members to work, or to share out the costs of ownership.  Neither did young adults talk longingly about golden Mercedes, or indeed any other iconic brands.  Cars were simply a tool for a job, to be used when convenient, rather than consumer status symbols promising freedom and autonomy.  Practicality was the overriding concern.  The traditional images of the car as evoking status, adult independence or autonomy were all brought up in discussions.  But they were brought up largely as jokes, or as irony.  Cars no longer offered a seductive vision of freedom: they were merely a mundane (if useful) part of a transport network.

The causes of this apparent decline in infatuation with the car were difficult to pin down.  Young adults themselves talked about many issues: the high costs of cars and insurance, their knowledge of the risks of road injury, the availability of other transport choices and their preferences for travelling in the company of others.  Few mentioned sustainability, or the importance of reducing our use of private cars overall: seemingly, environmental concerns are important to people, but rarely what changes behaviour. In countries with fewer resources to invest in alternative, public transport, modes and less governance of the road infrastructure, we might expect to see fewer incentives to fall out of love with the car.

So, worldwide, it may not yet be time to herald a golden ‘post car’ age.   But we certainly found signs of ‘peak car’ in the practical, rather than idealised, visions of how to get about in the UK, and a more collectivised view of how travel needs were to be managed.