Saturday 24 August 2019

The car-free myth. The Netherlands is a great country to live in if you're car-free, but it's a very long way from being a car-free country. Dutch car ownership and use are at an all time high.

The 1970s in Assen. The city was then full of cars. Cars are
now restricted in the city centre, but it would be incorrect to
assume that they've gone away. In fact, car numbers have
tripled since this photo was taken.
A myth has grown up about the Dutch being enthusiastic cyclists who live in green cities and rarely drive. In reality, the majority of journeys are made by motorized vehicles and people who live car-free are in a small and shrinking minority.

A life without motorized vehicles
Over the last year I've travelled about 7000 km. 6200 km was covered by bike and the rest I walked (I walk our dog 2 km a day on a normal day, sometimes much more). 6000 km is nothing to boast about. It's by no means an extreme distance to cycle in a year - it's barely more than enough to provide the minimum amount of exercise required for health.

It's quite easy to arrange a life so that you don't need to drive. When I took jobs which were too far away to cycle to, I moved closer to them so that they were within cycling distance. My shortest round trip commute was about 8 km and the longest was 60 km, so work was always within reach by bike and I never "had to" drive. When we lived in the UK we either took our children to school on a bike with us or we walked with them. Here in the Netherlands they made their own way by bike just like all the other kids. We've always made routine journeys like grocery shopping or visiting the dentist by bike because it's more convenient that way. It's also easy enough to carry food for a family in bicycle baskets or panniers or, if you really need a lot of things at once, in a trailer.

30 kg of parcels on the way to customers yesterday. The first
few km are under our control. We don't own or use motorized
vehicles so our customers' bike parts travel by human power.
I work from home these days so I don't have a commute, but I do cycle for work: Our business doesn't make use of motor vehicles so I transport parcels with a cargo bike. That distance is included in my total (all my bikes have bike computers so its easy to add up the total).

I've only travelled by motor vehicle twice over the last year, both times to help a friend with his fledgling business. Otherwise all my travel has been by bike or by foot.

We did actually own a car until a year ago when I took it to the scrapyard. I've not missed it. Cars just are not that fantastic. I didn't own one for most of my life and during the period when we did own a car, it would often go months (sometimes years) without either of us finding a reason to drive it, resulting in frozen brakes and dead batteries as the most common maintenance issues. It was occasionally a very convenient thing to have access to, but it was mostly a nuisance.

While we never used a car much in the UK, living without a car is even easier in the Netherlands because the excellent cycle-path network makes cycling much safer and more convenient. Conditions for cycling where we live in Assen are better than average for the Netherlands - that's not something which happened by accident but on purpose: we chose this location after looking around most of the country. But as a result, cycling is just excellent here.

The Dutch cycle-path network goes everywhere and works well anywhere in this country for people who don't want to have to rely upon a car. However, it would be a mistake to assume that because some people get about by bicycle in the Netherlands, and because some people make a choice not to run a car, that this means that cycling is in a healthy state in the country, or that a large percentage of people are happily living car-free because of that excellent cycling infrastructure. The willingly car-free are actually a small and decreasing minority.
On days off we go riding in the countryside. There are cycle-paths everywhere, not just in the cities.
Cars - the transport mode chosen most often by the Dutch.
A Dutch motorway in the middle of the day. The traffic is
constant and growing. Emissions, particulates, noise, all are
growing. This isn't helped by higher speed limits than in the
past leading to higher fuel consumption (130 km/h = 80 mph)
In 1992, 42% of Dutch households were car-free. By 2016 this had dropped to about a quarter. Car ownership has continued to increase since then. Higher car ownership leads to higher car usage. Almost anyone who can easily afford a car has one and there aren't many people at all who choose to go without if they can afford one: Amongst people of average income, just 12% of households don't have a car and that drops further to just 6% for high income households.

It shouldn't be a surprise that lower income families are most likely not to own a car as this is clearly a function of affordability. It's not a curse in the same way as it can be elsewhere as the excellent cycle path network offers relief from transport poverty. Therefore Dutch people who can't afford a car are not stuck with a terrible choice of trying to prioritize keeping a car or having to pay for expensive public transport as happens to people elsewhere. However the impressive road network which everyone pays for is primarily of use only to those who do own a car.

Cycling is still a significant mode in this country with around a quarter of all journeys still made by bike, but the lengths of journeys that Dutch people make has steadily grown and those journeys are increasingly being made by motorized means. The most popular vehicle by far is the private car. It's not helped by the tax free allowance of 20 cents per km driven paid on top of the salary by most employers (something which gave me quite a nice bonus when I cycled 60 km a day to get to work and back) which helps to encourage long commutes. Dutch commutes are the longest on average in Europe.

Cycling in the UK and Netherlands 1950-2000
Cycling dropped precipitously in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s with the rapid growth of motorized transport, especially private cars. The decline was arrested back in the 1970s, but cycling has not grown much since then. The motorized modes of transport which we sometimes like to think that we conquered have in fact continued to rise in popularity.

When I first wrote about car ownership and car-free living in the Netherlands 11 years ago I got two things wrong: First, I was overly impressed with the relatively high percentage of car-free households (42%), which unfortunately has now nearly halved. Second, I thought at the time that I could see a levelling off of car ownership in the data which was then available. That turned out not to be the case. The blip in the data can still be seen in the middle of the graph below, but you can see for yourself what happened afterwards:
From 197 cars per 1000 people in 1970 we've grown to 662 in 2019. i.e. we now have more than three times the number of cars per person even compared with the "bad old days" of the car dominated 1970s as portrayed in photos like that at the top of this article. We mustn't believe our own myths about having conquered the car. The simple fact is that Dutch car use has grown continuously for 70 years much as it has in every other nation. The government expects that growth to continue and roads are being expanded to cater for it.

The rise in driving is obvious to anyone who has been taking notice of how busy roads in this country have become in recent years. We've lived here for 12 years now. During that time we've seen enormous expenditure on road expansion all the way across the country and the number of vehicles being driven has increased to fill all those new roads.
Several shocks to car ownership can be seen on this graph if you look very closely. e.g. cars declined by 2/3rds during the second world war and you can also see a slight reduction in the rate of growth which coincides with the 1970s fuel crisis. However, none of these shocks to car ownership look actually did anything significant to prevent an ever-increasing rise in driving. The Dutch government continues to plan for more growth.
There are now around 8.5 million cars on the roads in the Netherlands. That's a million more cars than when we moved here 12 years ago. A million more cars contributing to climate change, creating particulate pollution and noise and putting people in danger. A million cars spread across the entire road network of the Netherlands means an extra car every 7 km. Of course they won't be evenly spread, and much of the time they'll be parked by homes. The extra cars are visible in Dutch cities. For instance, this city (Assen) has about half of one percent of the country's population, so we probably have around the same proportion of the additional cars, which is about 4000. There are roughly 250 km of streets in our city so we can now expect to find an extra parked car every 16 metres on residential streets in comparison to the situation 12 years ago.

This graphic show the imbalance between the small danger cyclists create and their relatively large exposure to danger.
While much has genuinely been done to make cycling safer here, the main cause of injury and death to cyclists (apart from older people having single sided collision on e-bikes) remains motor vehicles so we really do still need more work on this. Adding extra cars to every street increases the potential danger on every street.

On average Dutch people travel about 6500 km per year by car (that's an average per person, not per driver). You'll note that it's about the same distance as I cycle each year. Car ownership in recent years has grown especially strongly amongst older people. 50-65 year olds, 65-75 year olds and especially drivers aged 75+ use their cars far more now than ever before with 39% growth in the distance covered by in 75+ drivers between 2005 and 2015.

Not just cars. All motorized transport is a problem.
Our local airport installed solar to
greenwash its image. They don't put
fossil carbon back under the ground.
The total distance travelled per year by the average Dutch person is about 11000 km. You'll note that this is nearly double the distance distance travelled in cars. Much of the difference is composed of longer distances travelled by air. Flying is one of the fastest growing modes of travel in the Netherlands.

The rise in flying is something I've written about before. Between the 1960s and now, commercial flying has increased by a factor of 30. During that time, the efficiency of aircraft has improved by a factor of three, leaving us with 10x the emissions now that we had in the 1960s.

The use of trains is also growing sharply in the Netherlands. This not only means more trains, but also more, bigger railway stations. All of this has a huge environmental cost. While it's common to find people celebrating the enormous cycle parks at Dutch railway stations, they're not really an example of cycling success. What they represent is that Dutch people increasingly do not use their bicycles to make whole journeys but instead use them to allow them to make longer journeys by motorized transport. Cycling is not a green mode of transport when it is used merely as an adjunct to a motor vehicle.

The efficiency myth
If each car is twice as efficient then we have similar emissions to the 1980s, when cars were also not sustainable. If each car can be made three times as efficient then we can reach a situation where a much larger car fleet has the same impact as cars had on the Netherlands in the 1970s. But all that can do is return us to a similar pattern of energy consumption and emissions as we had from cars in in the 1970s, and that wasn't sustainable either. The only way that we will reduce the impact of cars is to have far fewer of them.

We see a similar picture with air travel. Graphs showing ever rising numbers of flights rightly cause many people concern. Unfortunately, a significant number, including campaigners on green issues, seem to think that making the same journeys by a different mode can fix the problem. It can't. The most optimistic estimates for emissions of high speed rail are that the emissions due to trains are about 90% lower than that per passenger km of an aircraft. There are reasons to doubt such claims, because for example they ignore the high environmental cost of railway infrastructure, but let's stick with that claimed 90% improvement for now. The question we need to ask is "was flying sustainable 40 years ago" ? The answer is of course that it was not. Now take a look at this graph:

It is estimated, byAirbus who hope to sell lots of aircraft, that flying will double over the next few years. Just imagine it were possible over the next 15 years to shift all those air passengers onto rail with a 90% improvement in efficiency. If that were possible, then we would expect the emissions of trains carrying those passengers to be proportional not to 15 trillion RPK by air per year, but to 1.5 trillion. That's about the level of air transport in 1979. i.e. if everyone switched to rail then by 2034 we'll be able to travel with the same emissions as we did 40 years ago. Of course, this wasn't sustainable 40 years ago and it won't be sustainable in the future either.

We need to travel less. Sailing ships and bicycles have no emissions. Everything else does.

Los Angeles in the 1950s. Does this look like a picture
of sustainability ? There are many more cars today.
Improving efficiency is not enough to solve the problems.
Not just a Dutch problem
Of course this isn't just a Dutch problem. The same things are happening world-wide. A few weeks ago I wrote about how the number of cars in the UK has doubled in the last 30 years, a similar growth rate to the Netherlands. Another interesting case for me is the USA. It's interesting because the USA was the first nation to adopt mass motoring. Perhaps they've reached a limit to growth in emissions ?

The photo on the right shows traffic in Los Angeles in the 1950s. The accompanying text points out that building more roads couldn't solve the problem of ever increasing traffic. This was already understood to be a problem 60 years ago.

It could be thought, optimistically, that US car ownership should have plateaued since that time however that has not happened. Instead, the numbers of cars on US roads have continued to rise.

How quickly has US car ownership risen ? Well, there are twice as many cars now as in the mid 1970s and at least four times as many as when the photo of Los Angeles in the 1950s was taken. That is why traffic congestion on roads remains a problem today. The US did not succeed in building its way out of congestion. Nor will it succeed in building its way out of emissions. This graph illustrates why:
For some years during the second world war no new cars at all were available to buy, but data points ten years apart shows little effect due to a total lack of new cars during that period. Similarly, the fuel crisis of the 1970s is almost impossible to discern. The rightmost part of the graph is flattened slightly because the final figure I could find was from 2017, while I really needed ownership figures from 2020.
Graph from a recent blog post about car growth in the UK. It's dramatic enough but note that this actually looks less steep than it should in comparison with the others because the X-axis scale is different: even the insert which looks steeper goes back only to 1950.
As with the Netherlands, car efficiency is being pushed as a way of solving the emissions problems of cars. However, no creditable study of the environmental impact of electric cars suggests that total lifetime emissions are significantly better than those of conventionally engine cars. The most optimistic studies suggest that total emissions could be as low as a quarter of that of cars with conventional engines but even if it were the case that electric cars had a quarter of the total impact of conventional cars, this could only return US emissions from cars to a similar level as that which they had in the 1950s, a similar level as was seen at the time of the photograph above, levels in other countries such as the Netherlands to those seen as recently as the 1970s and levels in developing countries to perhaps those of around decade ago. The emissions in the 1950s, 1970s and 2000s were not sustainable. Achieving those same emissions in the future with four times as many cars on the road also won't be sustainable. All we do is set back the clock a little. We don't really change anything.

We need to travel less. Bicycles and sailing boats are the only really sustainable modes of transport and these are the modes which should be encouraged above others.

What can be done about this ?
the excellent cycle paths in this country help us to run an
ethical business, but they're not attractive enough to convince
the majority of people that they can live without a car.
The Netherlands has built the most comprehensive grid of mostly very high quality cycling infrastructure anywhere in the world, but we are still failing to make cycling attractive enough to encourage people not to use motorized transport because actually we are still encouraging people to make ever more and longer journeys.

We need to change how our society is structured. Quite apart from the climate changing effects, the road deaths and the particulate production due to mass transport, people are wasting far too much of their time making long journeys in motorized vehicles. This is not a good use of our limited life-spans. The resultant stress is not good for our mental health. Instead of encouraging people to make long commutes by paying them 20 cents per kilometre that they travel, by giving subsidies for buying new cars and providing free public transport for commuters and students, thereby encouraging a high degree of use of motorized vehicles, we should be encouraging people to live near their work or work near their home. If we're going to offer subsidies, we should subsidise people to live in an ethical and low impact manner. For instance, we could subsidize people to move home to near their work, rather than help them to make long journeys every day. Maybe we could start to subsidize the most efficient vehicles on the planet instead of those which are amongst the least efficient.

Many people already choose to live in a less impactful way. They already choose to move instead of commute, to travel by human power even when carrying quite heavy loads. However while this behaviour benefits everyone it is not something which the government really supports. We certainly don't see a cent of subsidy for behaving in an ethical manner.

A poster from an a protest
against our local airport.
We also need to start to tax air travel in particular, but also all long distance transport by any means. It's an outrage that air travel is encouraged by both government subsidies for the airports and flights as well as a total lack of taxation on the fuel. Despite all efficiency improvements, the environmental impact of aviation has risen by a factor of ten during my lifetime. We need to fix this (and recognise that switching to an alternative mode which is "90% more efficient" represents nothing more advanced than setting the pollution clock back to the wasteful 1960s.

Other countries: You need to do all of that and also build the cycling infrastructure. Otherwise your citizens will, even more than the Dutch, feel that they have no choice but to drive cars daily and to travel long distances. Our continued relatively peaceful existence on this planet requires that we act.

We are asking the wrong question
Lots of people are asking the question "how can we continue to make ever more long journeys in future?" Few are asking the question "how can we live lives which require us to spend less time travelling?"

Update 27 August: Here come the urbanists
This blog post has attracted quite a bit of attention on twitter and has been re-tweeted by people who appear not to have actually read the text but who seem to think that the graph showing rising car usage indicates something along the lines of that Dutch suburbs have failed and that in future everyone should live in densely populated cities and travel by bus or train. That is not what the text above says. I don't say that because it would not be helpful and it would condemn the world's population to a grim existence of living on top of one-another in packed cities.

  1. Population density: The Netherlands has the world's highest proportion of journeys by bike, but it does not have especially densely populated cities. Cycling is relatively attractive in the Netherlands because people can make a positive choice to cycle on infrastructure which is convenient and safe.
  2. Suburbs: Suburbs can be designed to encourage and support a high degree of cycling and walking. This results in far more attractive living conditions than a densely populated city. Think of a suburb as being quite similar to a village, so long as we make sure that there are facilities within the suburb and that they are not built as dormitories.
  3. Public transport: It is true that Dutch people do not use public transport much. However, this is not a negative point about the Netherlands. Instead of being large users of public transport, the Dutch have the highest use of non-motorized transport in Europe. In fact, the proportion of journeys walked or cycled in the Netherlands is higher than the proportion of journeys taken by public transport in any European nation, even much poorer nations where there is less choice other than the take public transport. Walking and cycling are the two truly green transport modes. It is certainly not beneficial to seek to encourage people to swap bicycles for public transport.
  4. Public transport and wealth: The use of public transport declines with wealth. People who who a choice, because live in a more wealthy country or become more wealthy, are less likely to accept that their journey from A to B should take place on someone else's timetable and include a detour through C and D. That is why people opt to drive, and in the Netherlands why they opt to cycle as well. The Netherlands is one of the richest countries in Europe yet has one of the highest rates of non-motorized transport. That is a success. It's possible because cycling offers direct and convenient journeys. We merely need to provide go-everywhere infrastructure to make it also safe and attractive.
This article aims to bust a myth about the Dutch being particularly keen cyclists who do not drive because the fact is that Dutch people are quite wealthy, they own a lot of cars and they drive a lot. However it does not aim to call the relative Dutch success in cycling anything other than a success.

This country has the highest modal share for cycling in the world. Our cycling infrastructure is second to none and this has created opportunities to cycle which do not exist elsewhere. The infrastructure has normalized cycling amongst a population which is rich enough to drive for a higher proportion of their journeys than they do.

The problem that we are facing now, along with every other nation as none have tackled it, is that we have not addressed the ever growing usage of motor vehicles. Every car, bus, train, airplane is polluting the planet and slowly killing us. We need to reduce the usage of motor vehicles and should not aim simply to swap from one motorized vehicle to another because as pointed out above ("the efficiency myth") that cannot not solve the issue.

The Netherlands offers a tantalizing glimpse of something that other countries could and should adopt. Building high quality cycling infrastructure works to give people a positive option, addressing the problem of motoring to some extent. However it's not enough. We must also counter motor vehicles.

The "disappointing" response
For some reason some people see the growth of driving in the Netherlands as particularly surprising, as if they expect the Dutch to be different to people in other countries.

Dutch people are people. On average they're fairly wealthy so can afford cars. They are just as influenced by advertising and the appeal of shiny new things as anyone anywhere else. What's more, there are tax breaks and subsidies for buyers of new cars, Dutch roads are excellent, traffic jams are rare and here in the Netherlands you can actually make a profit from a long commute by car because you'll be paid an extra 20 cents tax free for every kilometre of your commute.

What is unusual in the Netherlands is the extent to which people still choose to cycle, despite all this encouragement to drive. They do so because the cycling infrastructure makes cycling an appealing, convenient and safe option. But until we stop encouraging driving, we can only expect the number of cars and the distance that they're driven each year to continue to increase.

Update 17 September 2019 - A new official driving record has been set by Dutch drivers
A study just published by the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics has found that Dutch drivers drove their cars a record distance in 2018 - a total of 121.4 billion kilometres, or 1.2% more than in 2017. The average usage per car actually dropped by 1%, but the 2.2% growth in the number of cars over a year more than made up for that (note in the text above the shift from people being passengers in cars to driving alone). The growth in total kilometres driven for business use at 4% was higher than the growth in individual use at 0.4%, but it's important to recognise that both of these figures show growth.
Light blue shows personal car usage which has grown steadily year on year while the dark blue shows business use which took a dive with the 2008 crisis before rising more sharply. Note also that while businesses are catching up and did so particularly last year, it's a steady increase in personal usage which is actually the big growth area.

Due to the diesel scandal, the use of diesel powered cars has dropped by 2.5%, but the growth in petrol powered cars was greater at 2.7%. While the Netherlands has by some standards quite high numbers of electrically powered cars, only 0.5% of total km driven are driven in an electric car vs. 99.5% in fossil fuel cars. Even if they were a solution to something (which they are not), their numbers would in any case be too small to make a difference.

In other recent news, European cars are getting bigger with SUVs now making up 36% of total sales, expected to rise to 40% by 2021. This trend can also be seen in the Netherlands. This, unsurprisingly, has resulted in CO2 emissions from motor vehicles rising year on year. While car companies are supposed to limit their average emissions per vehicle sold to 95 g of CO2 per km, the average SUV emits 120 g over the same distance. From January car manufacturers will have to pay a €95 fine per g CO2/km per car. To work around the fine, car manufacturers are subsidizing some buyers to buy lower emission cars so that they can continue to sell the high emission cars to other purchasers, keeping their average emissions per vehicle at the highest point that they can without paying a fine. It's an accounting trick. i.e. not helping in any way to clean up our environment.

Even if electric cars were a solution, which they're not, they remain a tiny fraction of the cars sold (even here, and more so worldwide). What's happening at the moment is that we're seeing more and more fossil fueled cars being added to the roads. They each have an expected lifespan of around 20 years so we're locking in a high level of fossil fuel consumption for personal transport for another 20 years. And this year's cars are not the end of the story: we also have no reason to expect much to change next year, or the year after. Car companies plan to continue to produce more cars for as long as they can, oil companies plan to produce more oil to fuel them. No-one is actually tackling this problem. Somehow we're supposed to want to see our carbon emissions decrease before 2030, but all of those new cars cumulatively will work to ensure that this doesn't happen by staying on the roads for many more years than that.

The only solution is for car usage to drop. So what is the Dutch government doing about it ? Much the same as any other: the budget which was just announced includes billions for more motorways, billions to install 1.8 million extra charging points for electric cars, billions to encourage people to make long journeys by train, and also a little bit for cycling which a minister described as "the secret weapon against congestion". So secret that it receives little in funding compared with more polluting modes of transport.

Burning oil
I don't have rights to a photo of the Saudi Arabian attack
so this is actually a gas flare near my home.
In addition, readers will no doubt also be aware of the drone attacks at the weekend on the oil processing plant in Saudi Arabia. This has been quite big news and it has led to oil price rises. The thick black smoke resulting from the flames is obviously a significant pollutant. But note this: If were not burnt as a result of this attack all that oil was going to be burnt anyway in a car, truck, bus, train or aeroplane somewhere near you. All that carbon was going to be emitted into our environment. The burning with black smoke is less efficient and has resulted in a lot of soot, but the soot hasn't been converted into CO2 as would have been the case had that oil been burnt as was intended. The attack may actually have resulted in lower CO2 emissions than would have been the case otherwise. We need to stop burning oil, whether in vehicles, power stations or in attacks like this one. It's all the same.

Are younger people driving less ?
One part of the picture is that the influence of younger people on the growth in driving in the Netherlands is less than the influence of older people who on average account for more of the growth. Naturally, there have been some attempts to make a generational issue out of this, to make out that the young are behaving differently because they think differently. Unfortunately, there's no real evidence for that. In fact, these differences are very small and there is another better explanation: It's not about age, it's about wealth. Wealthier people drive more than less wealthy people. This holds true for entire nations (though NL bucks that trend a bit) just as much as it does within a nation.

Dutch lottery advertisement. Yes, you can win a bike.
But I suspect most people would rather win the car.
There is no indication that younger people are driving less by choice. Rather, younger people these days are under more financial pressure than was the case for people of the same age a few decades ago. For instance, accommodation is more expensive now and is consuming a larger proportion of income. Rents are higher than they used to be and it's really much more difficult to "get on the housing ladder" now than it was when the people who are older now were getting started. As a result, other things have to be prioritized. But give people money and they tend to buy a car. That's why lottery adverts always feature cars, including here in the Netherlands.

Car companies are no more likely to solve the problems which inevitably come from using cars than cigarette companies can be relied upon to solve the problems caused by their product. Different new cars are not the answer to any of the problems caused by cars. We need far fewer cars.

Update September 2020 - even more driving
We now have the stats for 2019. Another record year of car driving here in the Netherlands. Dutch drivers drove 122.5 billion kilometres last year. While the 1.2% rise in driving last year prompted my concern, this year we've seen an even bigger 1.9% rise.

Benzine is Dutch for petrol / gasoline. I think you'll work the others out for yourselves.

The main growth was, unsurprisingly, in petrol / gasoline powered cars (light blue in the graph), which still outsell all other kinds of cars. While use of electric vehicles has doubled, they are still only a tiny fraction of the total so even if they were transformative, which they are not, their numbers are still too small to make any useful difference and that will remain true for many years to come. To solve the problems caused by cars we don't need different cars but fewer cars being driven less.

Fact check: Dutch car ownership continues to rise, just as elsewhere around the world


E said...

As an American who is familiar with statistics involving American driving, total car ownership is an extremely poor indicator of what is happening in the US right now with automobiles.

In the United States, out of those who are legally eligible to have a driver's license, roughly 25% do not have one. That proportion peaked in 1983 and has subsequently declined every year. Notably, while men traditionally have driven more in the US, driving has fallen much faster among men than women, who are now more likely to have a driver's license than men, assuming they are legally eligible.

Distance driven per capita actually peaked in 1995 and has declined every year since then.

Over the past two decades, cycling grew amongst all demographics. However, cycling grew fastest amongst middle aged and elderly demographics. American experience also seems to show that once Americans switch to riding their bicycles for most trips, they seldom return to their cars for most trips.

Over the past several decades, the age of the average licensed driver in the US has increased faster than the average population.

A number of innovations that have come out of Silicon Valley in recent years make it easier to live without a car. For all its controversy, Uber has allowed people who were right on the edge of car ownership to skip car ownership completely. Instacart has had similar repercussions.

Furthermore, push scooters with electric motors have spread to many American cities. They travel at around the same speed as bicycles. Many curious Americans try these scooters, and when they do, they inevitably realize that dedicated infrastructure for bicycles would bring numerous benefits, not only for cycling but also for other modes of transport, such as these scooters (as an aside, people have devised ways to carry groceries and beverages on them and even ride them while sitting).

Today's American teenagers have, at least thus far, shown themselves to have financial patterns far more akin to people who grew up during the Great Depression than subsequent generations. In many cases, the cost of a car, and the cost of driver's ed training, which is increasingly not subsidized, turns many off of driving. Furthermore, it's often difficult (not impossible) to afford them without debt, which is uncool with American Teenagers.

US citizens have also found much more effective ways of organizing themselves against car-centric design, and around alternatives.

I myself have seen people's attitude change towards cycling. In the past, cycling as transportation was viewed by many people as a symbol that one had failed at life and could not do better. Today, cycling for transport is often seen as healthy and financially prudent, and in some cases, outright stylish. It's also increasingly seen as democratic and liberating.

None of this is to say that car culture in the US is completely dead, but it's very different, and it feels as though it is fading.

The proportion of households that own at least one car has declined nationwide, not only in urbanized areas but also in areas that are nearly entirely rural, like the US state of Vermont.

Furthermore, US car ownership per capita leveled out and decreased in recent years.

However, the US has continued to experience some level of population growth. This growth in population means that in aggregate, Americans still own more cars than they did in the past. Whether this will continue is another question.

David Hembrow said...

E: Thank you for your obviously well considered contribution. I would like to believe that the US had turned against motor vehicles, but I've just looked up the figures for the US population over time and made calculations for motor vehicles per 1000 people for each of the points on the graph (every ten years except 2017 in place of 2020). Unfortunately, while the rate of growth is not very steep over the last 20-30 years I would appear to be going too far to claim that there is a levelling off or a reduction in popularity. The numbers indicate that not only has the total number of motor vehicles increased, but so has their number per 1000 population. In 1960 there were 411 motor vehicles per 1000 people, 1970: 533, 1980: 687, 1990: 776, 2000: 802, 2010: 809 and 2017: 834. Wikipedia states 811 for 2017, but they must have a different, lower, source for the number of motor vehicles registered than that which I used.

It is quite possible that people who you know are behaving differently even at the same time as the population at large is still highly motor oriented. I would expect that most people who read this blog (as well as its author) tend to mix with people who are less enthusiastic than average about cars and more enthusiastic than average about bikes. But our personal experiences of people apparently being keen to live car-free are not the norm, not in your country nor even in mine though we do have a particularly high degree of cycle usage.

I haven't been able to find any convincing evidence that US motor vehicle miles per person are actually either up or down. One source said in 2013 that they were down, before reporting in 2018 that they were up. It's possible that what was actually observed was the effect of the 2008 market crash on driving. Comparing year on year is likely to expose a lot of noise like this, which isn't really related to the long term trend. Just look at how the 1970s oil crisis which had a major documented effect simply isn't visible in my graphs above. To have concentrated on consecutive years during the 1970s could have given a very wrong impression of what what actually going on.

Zvi Leve (Montreal, QC, Canada) said...

«I haven't been able to find any convincing evidence that US motor vehicle miles per person are actually either up or down.» You are quite correct! Surprisingly, we actually have very limited actual data about annual vehicle usage. The numbers that we do have are almost always based on travel surveys and simulation results - we should be very cautious about the accuracy of such 'data'. It is very disappointing that we do not require submitting odometer readings annually each time that we renew the vehicle registration. This would be a simple thing to implement administratively and would provide quality data....

Do you know if such data is accurate in the UK or the Netherlands?

David Hembrow said...

During the annual safety inspection for vehicles, current odometer readings are recorded on official documents in both the UK and the Netherlands so more accurate data may be available somewhere. However, I don't know that this data is used for anything that we might be able to use. Our publicly available data may also be the result of surveys.

marmotte27 said...

Concerning your postscript on the "urbanists", I struggle to understand why these people think everyone living in dense cities wold be in any way feasible, sustainable let alone attractive.

Already big cities everywhere are 'overheating' in terms of population and hence insufficient infrastructure, transport and otherwise, and housing, upward spiralling rents, generating social tensions, poverty, driving out many actual residents who either cannot afford to live there any longer or are looking for a better qualtiy of life elsewhere.
At the same time in many, especially the larger countries, the countryside is emptied of its population whole areas are depopulated and in consequence see their public services, their jobs dwindle and their attractivity further reduced.

The solution to all this is staring us in the face, and it's just the opposite of what these urbanists dream up, i.e. strengthening the countryside, getting the jobs (in ecological gardening, farming, skilled crafts, trade, public services, small industries etc. all of which we will need far more in a sustainable economy) and the people back there, making commutes far shorter (and less car-dependant) and more pleasant, rents cheaper, quality of life better while reducing pressure on the urban areas.

All this needs is the will to think differently in economic and poltical terms. I think that's also why hardly anyone promotes ideas like these, while the urbanists are everywhere: the latter are just pushing the actual development to it's 'logical' (of course it's anything but) conclusion, unable to see it for what it is, literally a dead end.

Burnt's Blog said...

Interestingly this article appeared in the Australian ABC News page, Australia's love with the car is similar to America, sadly.

Enjoyed reading your analysis David.

Terry Burn
Brisbane, AUS

Burnt's Blog said...

Oops, here is the link I referred to!

Lodewijk said...

I think I found the answers to 2 questions you mention:
1) Lots of people are asking the question "how can we continue to make ever more long journeys in future?"
2) Few are asking the question "how can we live lives which require us to spend less time travelling?"

The first one is answered by physics: increase the speed of the means that you use. So you can cover longer distances in the same time. A speed that is limited by the speed of light.
So the answer is: no, we can't increase that forever.

The second one is answered by the Marchetti's constant (BREVER-wet in Dutch). It seems humans have a constant "travel time budget".
So the answer is: no, we can't change that.

Matt said...

Hi David, I wonder if the Dutch should copy the Singaporeans in terms of going for road user charging and greater vehicle ownership fees (and Singaporeans should copy Dutch cycle paths. Britain should copy both but do the cycle paths first).

LB Lewisham has Zipcar Flexes everywhere but rentable cargo bikes would be better :-)

What are your thoughts?

David Hembrow said...

Matt: I think there's a huge problem with countries not learning lesson from each other and the idea that Singapore and the Netherlands should copy each other appeals to me from that point of view.

However, videos online of Singapore don't really show any kind of paradise. It's just as clogged up with cars and the resultant pollution as any other place. They've had to limit ownership because the situation was desperate. I think it's a really sad case actually - it's a tiny place. The whole country is barely more than 40 km wide at the largest point and the maximum journey length possible in only about 50 km, so almost all journeys being made are far shorter than this, virtually everything is within easy cycling distance, but what could have been paradise has instead become a fume choked mess just like everywhere else...

Rentable cargo bikes are indeed a good idea as they're something that not everyone will have. But they suffer from the same inconvenience as other rentable things - they're not at home. We can rent a cargo bike here in Assen. For example, from the recycling centre (i.e. what we used to call "the dump"). However it's just about at the further possible point from home within the city so using their cargo bike to take stuff to the dump would involve twice as much cycling as using our own bikes with trailers.

The power of bicycles comes to a fairly large extent from the fact that they're cheap, and that means people can afford to own more than one of them. Also people take better care of their own stuff than things that they hire.