Have we reached peak car?

By Rebecca Priestley In Science

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One of this country’s so-called Roads of National Significance passes close by my house, where the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) proposes to widen a two-lane stretch of State Highway One to six lanes as part of a plan to “improve Wellington’s transport network”.

As someone who commutes daily from an eastern suburb to a western suburb, I’m one of the people they’re building the road for, but I don’t need or want it. I usually catch a bus to work and sometimes walk. When I do drive the family car, the roads can be busy, but not so much that it bothers me.

The smartphone, along with free Wi-Fi on public transport, is a game changer. Photo/Thinkstock

The NZTA’s highway-building programme assumes that car use will increase, but there’s growing evidence that we have already passed “peak car”. In line with an international trend, our per capita car ownership and annual travel distance have declined since a peak in 2005.

Some pundits pin this decline on the economic downturn and increased fuel prices, but academics from the University of Otago’s Energy Cultures research programme, who presented at an Energy Conference in Wellington last month, say it’s also because of changing mobility practices.

International trends suggest that “transport will shift quite dramatically over the next 20-30 years,” said Janet Stephenson, who leads the Energy Cultures team. Fossil-fuel price and availability, along with the global imperative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are already driving moves towards more efficient vehicles, alternative fuels and transport alternatives. There are also “big changes in the way younger people are using and perceiving transport … they get licences later if at all, are less likely to purchase cars, and if they do own a car they use it less.”

Why? Blame the smartphone. People can be socially connected now without having to drive to each other’s houses. They can communicate with friends or consume entertainment while using public transport in a way they can’t while driving. Smart technology is also making it easier to have an integrated public transport system, where people can get from one part of the city to another, using three or four different types of transport that link up.

New technologies might also be changing notions of what constitutes a desirable object. “In the past people looked forward to owning a vehicle. Now, potentially, they want to own a nice phone or a nice tablet,” said Debbie Hopkins, also one of the Energy Cultures team.

When I was a teenager, getting a driver’s licence was a rite of passage, but Hopkins is seeing young people choosing to save money for an OE rather than spend it on a car. Overseas experience, particularly in Europe, where public transport is a social norm, is perhaps one of the reasons it is becoming more socially acceptable here. It’s not just becoming more normal to use public transport, but also increasingly common to ride a bicycle in business clothes or join a meeting via Skype.

Despite all this, over the next decade the Government plans to spend some $14 billion on new state highways, compared with only $500 million on new infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling. Generation Zero is leading a campaign to split transport funding 50-50 between new roads and what they call “smart transport options”.

Many public transport systems in Europe are now offering Wi-Fi as a way to attract users. With that kind of budget, rolling out free Wi-Fi to improved public transport could be part of a more creative and cost-effective transport solution than all those new highways.

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