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(Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
(Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Are we reaching 'peak car'? Add to ...

“I tried going through the city. I tried taking the expressway as well. It always took me at least an hour and 15 minutes. People were always on their horns, honking. I would just come home miserable and agitated,” she says. “I started to understand about road rage. And I began thinking, ‘I'm dying to cycle to work just once.' ”

Ms. Giles had not been on a bike since she was 18, younger than her two grown-up sons are now. But a few weeks later, she took a cycling-safety course, and made her vision a reality.

Today, she drives half as much as she once did, mostly to do major shopping and visit friends, and says she happily rides past gridlocked motorists on her way to work, thinking, “It stinks to be you.”

Commute times in Toronto are now among the longest in North America, and the frustration that pushed Ms. Giles away from her car is one of several factors fuelling recent driving trends.

The rebound in urban-centre residential growth over the past 20 years has reduced the need to drive, as many people have moved back within reach of city transit systems or even within walking distance from their jobs. Meanwhile, telecommuting, social media and online shopping have all cut back on the need for people to go anywhere outside the house at all.

Demographics also have an important impact. The two largest current cohorts are aging baby boomers and their young-adult children, known as Generation Y. The youngest of these Millennials are currently in their mid-teens, just the age when they should be getting their driver's licences.

But U.S. transportation data show that many of them are putting off that long-cherished rite of passage well into their 20s.

In fact, they're more likely than any previous generation in the automotive age never to learn to drive at all. It's a choice that may feed into their elders' suspicion that this is a group that stubbornly holds on to its adolescence rather than accommodate itself to adulthood, but is also just a mark of when they came of age. To them, cars are “an older-generation technology,” says Tara Mahoney, 28, of Burnaby, B.C.

“Cars are not as interesting as they used to be. They're an outdated ethos,” says Ms. Mahoney, who owns a Subaru all-wheel-drive but finds it much less stressful to use a combination of Vancouver's SkyTrain and a bicycle to get to her new-media company's office downtown. “I think Generation Y might think of themselves as beyond that, as the generation that can do better.”

While young people cut the cord to car dependency, the generation that yoked its identity to horsepower-driven icons such as teenage muscle cars and hippie Volkswagens may soon be joining them. With the oldest baby boomers now reaching retirement age, more and more will also be abandoning the very slow rat race that is the daily commute. Most people cut their driving by about 50 per cent when they stop working full-time.

And that, Mr. Litman says, should be enough in itself to push economists, planners and politicians to take a good hard look at the future. “A lot of current policies are misguided,” he says. “They might have made sense 40 or 50 years ago, but now it makes absolutely no sense to continue the policy distortions that encourage auto use.”

Mr. Tomer agrees: “We're going to need to look in the mirror and examine some of the concepts we've been putting down. … Do we want to build wider roads, or do people really want the chance to do their shopping close to home? Are we looking for more localized economies?”

One conclusion from policy experts such as Mr. Kenworthy and his colleague Peter Newman, at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth, is that planners and developers will have to change their styles, becoming “much more adept at re-urbanizing suburbs and centres than in scattering suburbs around the urban fringe,” as they wrote in a paper this spring.

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