Moving Australia


Peak Car and Public Transport

What is Peak Car?

Peak Car is a term that describes a decrease in car use throughout the world.  Peak Car is a phenomenon identified primarily by theorists and researchers focussing on transport planning and transport economics.  
Low or flattening in growth of vehicle kilometres travelled per capita, and in some countries total vehicle kilometres travelled, has been observed in developed countries since the early 1990s.  This trend was recognised by researchers in the 1990s  and continues to be tracked and observed in research today.

Data demonstrates a slowdown in growth of car vehicle kilometres per capita in cities in the developed world over a 45 year period from 1960 to 2005, including cities in the USA, Canada, Australia and Europe.  
Research undertaken by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Research Economics (BITRE) in 2012 in Australia examined traffic growth trends for 25 countries across continents including Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States.  The trend across the 25 countries in this research indicates a levelling off in vehicle kilometres per capita in the 2005 to 2010 period. The trend graph is presented in Figure 1.

What is Causing Peak Car?

Government policy as a driver of Peak Car has been explored by theorists from multiple perspectives. Some research identifies underinvestment in transport infrastructure as a constraint on travel growth , while the opposite is argued in citing the “rise of urban rail” partly as a consequence of increased investment in it as a key driver of Peak Car. 

The contribution of taxation and fiscal policy to reductions in car use in Britain has resulted in a steep decline car use amongst males.  Government policy related to housing and urban development patterns are credited as a factor in peak car.  Research shows an “urban renaissance” has resulted in reductions in car use to a relaxation of planning policies in the UK and identifies a policy bent towards Brownfield rather than Greenfield development as a driver of lowered rates of car use and vehicle kilometres travelled. 

Social and technological factors are important in driving peak car. Mobile telecommunications and devices supported by wireless internet technology are a contributing factor in a reduction in car ownership and use by young people, and also the growth in patronage for rail travel. 

The nexus between physical factors and personal travel choice is embodied in the Marchetti Constant. The Marchetti Constant is the idea that all cities throughout history have had similar travel time budgets and that over time as travel modes have become motorised the distance able to be travelled in that time increased.  As congestion becomes thicker and more prevalent the distance that can be travelled by car within the Marchetti Constant has actually reduced, resulting in people altering the way they travel and where they choose to live. 

Peak Car and the Future

BITRE also undertook modelling to forecast traffic growth per capita for the 25 countries represented in Figure 1 to the year 2029. The forecasting, represented in Figure 2, demonstrates that this levelling off in vehicle kilometres travelled per capita will continue for the foreseeable future.

As Generation Y surpasses their parents’ generation as the largest, an outcome which has already occurred in Australia , the technological, social and cultural factors that are driving higher rates of public transport use amongst younger commuters have the potential to produce negative growth in car use.

Peak Car and Public Transport: BIC’s Position

In their investigation of a decline in driver’s licence uptake among Victorians aged 17 to 25 years old Currie and Delbosc (2014) credit a preference for public transport to technological factors, psychological factors such as concern for the environment and cultural factors related to the increased length of time young people spend living at home. 

As well as being an underlying cause of Peak Car, public transport has benefited from a slowdown in car use. Significant increases in public transport patronage over the decade to 2011 can be in part attributed to a desire amongst younger Australians to avoid car use.

The BIC takes the view that Peak Car is an opportunity for the bus industry and more broadly public transport to capitalise on this desire for more sustainable and user friendly forms of travel. In order to keep younger non-drivers out of cars and in public transport we need to continually improve and expand our services. Governments of all levels and the industry have a key role to play in achieving this outcome. 

1.Millard-Ball, A. and Schipper, L. (2011). Are we reaching Peak Travel? Trends in Eight Industrialised Countries. Transport Reviews, 2011.
2. Goodwin, P. and Van Dender, K. (2013). ‘Peak Car’ — Themes and Issues. Transport Reviews, 33(3), pp.243-254.
3. Ibid., ^
4. Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J (1999) Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence, Island Press, Washington DC.
5. Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J (2011) ‘Peak Car Use’: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence, World Transport, Policy & Practice, Volume 17.2 June 2011, pp.31-45.
6. Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics, (2012). Traffic Growth, Modelling a Global Phenomenon. Canberra: Australian Government.
7. Millard-Ball, A. and Schipper, L. (2011). Are we reaching Peak Travel? Trends in Eight Industrialised Countries. Transport Reviews, 2011.
8. Newman, P., Kenworthy, J. and Glazebrook, G. (2013). Peak Car Use and the Rise of Global Rail: Why This Is Happening and What It Means for Large and Small Cities. JTTs, 03(04), pp.272-287.
9. Le Vine, S., Jones, P. and Polak, J. (2013). The Contribution of Benefit-in-Kind Taxation Policy in Britain to the ‘Peak Car’ Phenomenon. Transport Reviews, 33(5), pp.526-547.
10. Metz, D. (2013). Peak Car and Beyond: The Fourth Era of Travel. Transport Reviews, 33(3), pp.255-270.
11. Headicar, P. (2013). The Changing Spatial Distribution of the Population in England: Its Nature and Significance for ‘Peak Car’. Transport Reviews, 33(3), pp.310-324.
12. Newman, P. and Kenworthy, J (2011) ‘Peak Car Use’: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence, World Transport, Policy & Practice, Volume 17.2 June 2011, pp.31-45.
13. Ibid.,^
14. Marchetti, C. (1994). Anthropological invariants in travel behavior. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 47(1), pp.75-88.
15. Delbosc, A. and Currie, G. (2014). Using discussion forums to explore attitudes toward cars and licensing among young Australians. Transport Policy, 31, pp.27-34.
16. Ibid.,^

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