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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 ...

Anyone who has been stuck in big-city gridlock lately may find this hard to believe, but millions of Westerners are giving up their cars.

Experts say our love affair with the automobile is ending, and that could change much more than how we get around – it presents both an opportunity and an imperative to rethink how we build cities, how governments budget and even the contours of the political landscape.

The most detailed picture of the trend comes from the United States, where the distance driven by Americans per capita each year flatlined at the turn of the century and has been dropping for six years. By last spring, Americans were driving the same distance as they had in 1998.

The data are similar in Europe, Australia and Japan. And, although Canada doesn't keep national statistics on individual driving habits, Australian researcher Jeff Kenworthy has found that driving in the nation's five largest cities, combined, declined by 1.7 per cent per capita from 1995 to 2006.

If developed countries are reaching “peak car,” as some transportation experts are calling it, it's not just a product of high unemployment or skyrocketing fuel prices, as the pattern began to show up years before the 2008 financial crisis.

Nor is it primarily a matter of people feeling guilted into reducing their car use for the sake of the climate and the environment – the threat of separating people from their wheels (or taxing their fuel use) has long been one of the green movement's biggest stumbling blocks.

Indeed, the shift is so gradual and widespread that it's clearly not a product of any “war on the car” or other ideological campaign. Rather, it's a byproduct of a stage of development that cities were probably destined to reach ever since the dawn of the automobile age: Finding themselves caught in an uncomfortable tangle of urban sprawl, population growth and plain individual inconvenience, people, one by one, are just quietly opting out.

Adie Tomer, an infrastructure researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., was one of the first to spot the trend. “To me, it suggests we've started to hit this wall as far as how far and how much people are willing to drive,” he says.

No one is suggesting the car is about to disappear from North American roads – 85 per cent of us still either drive or carpool to work. But as suburbs spread out, commute times slow to a crawl and the cost of operating a vehicle climbs higher, even hard-core drivers are making what British Columbia transportation consultant Todd Litman calls a “rational choice” to find other alternatives.

“If you're a typical North American, at the end of a long, stressful day at work, you're not saying, ‘I can't wait to get in my car. I would just love to go for a drive.' It's much more likely you'll say, ‘I wish I could go for a walk,' ” says Mr. Litman, executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

That's the point at which people run up against what's called the Marchetti Wall – the psychological barrier against spending more than about an hour getting to work or coming home.

The concept is named for a Venetian physicist named Cesare Marchetti, who posited not only that human beings instinctively adjust their lives to avoid travelling more than that amount every day, but that we've been doing so since the Neolithic era, even as modes and speeds of transportation have advanced.

Suburban Toronto resident Margaret Giles hit the wall one day sitting in her 2003 Toyota Corolla, stuck yet again in heavy traffic. She had already spent more than an hour trying to travel the 13 kilometres between her job at a downtown law office and home, and there seemed to be no end in sight.

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