Image of cars - nose to tail

+ The challenge for anyone with a stake in designing and planning (and building and influencing) our transport systems is to support more balanced and sustainable solutions, ones that don’t ignore the suburbs.

Journalists like to claim that we’ve reached and passed ‘peak car’ – the point at which peoples’ average Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) hits a ceiling and starts to decline. Many reasons are cited, from the increasing density of cities’ business and residential populations, to the travel preferences of urban millennials, who’d rather use car sharing apps like Uber and Lyft than own their own car. But I believe that these trends are overstated and that as transport practitioners we need to ask the right questions of data and better understand our cities as diverse systems.

By interpreting transportation data too selectively it’s possible to overlook many of the persistent mobility and access challenges still faced by communities. Emerging preferences for active transport and transit (like walking or cycling), and the adoption of technology and shared mobility systems are not having the effects on urban transport we are being led to believe. At least, not yet.

Commentators believe cities in some developed nations reached ‘peak car’ as far back as 2004. But problematically, this reported trend data often tails off around 2010. Other research analysing trends since 2010 has correlated changes in car use to factors like changes in GDP and fuel prices (in countries including the USA). This research also demonstrates an increase in average VMT after the global financial crisis. Furthermore, VMT in the aggregate is growing as urban populations expand.

In fact, dependency on cars is still a feature of many cities, and non-car transport is often only a viable alternative in relatively small parts of metropolitan areas. Furthermore, many people continue to drive private cars, in some countries driving license applications are on the rise, with enduring impacts on our cities.

Millenials might be keen users of car sharing programmes, but they shouldn’t be seen as a single, homogenous population. More young people may be walking and cycling but these trips still represent a small percentage of trips overall. Also young people’s needs, preferences and behaviours will likely change over time, for example, when they start a family.

A recent study of car sharing services in the San Francisco Bay Area showed that city dwellers who use car sharing programmes own fewer cars than those who don't. However, there were fewer car-sharers in the suburbs compared to downtown. Despite all the headlines about car riding apps, only about 2% of the population and 3% of households identify as car sharing programme members. Only those who happen to live in city centres tend to be happy to entirely forego car ownership, and this remains a very small percentage of the overall population.

Trends are interesting, but it’s vital we don’t fall into the trap of concluding that our city centres are representative of cities as a whole. The challenge for anyone with a stake in designing and planning (and building and influencing) our transport systems is to support more balanced and sustainable solutions, ones that don’t ignore the suburbs. And it’s important to remember that transport needs are as diverse as cities’ populations.

What are the questions you would ask of data to better understand an urban population’s transport needs – whilst not ignoring the suburbs?