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Who Wants a Driver’s License?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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In the last post I presented results from my poll on the importance of cars to your everyday life. The results suggest, simply put, that its importance is sliding downwards. Yet, are we seeing this outside the US and elsewhere in similar countries? And if so, is it not just because of the global economic recession?

To answer this question, we can begin with one graph you might have seen before by Professor Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan. In it you can divine two things: first, it appears that interest in driving in the US is plateauing; and second, it appears to have started before the recession. Does this mean driving has plateaued forever in the US? Have we reached “peak” car/driving/travel?

Arguably, it’s a bit too soon to tell, but perhaps by looking at other countries with similar income we can get a better sense of where things are headed in the developed world.

Flagging indicators across the board for driving in the US. Source: Michael Sivak, University of Michigan.

In Sweden, the average yearly driving distance has gone down 6% since 2009 from 12 990 km per year to 12 230 km pear year today. But due to the timing, perhaps this is merely a function of the recession. Instead, let’s turn to Japan where articles started popping up already in the 1990s and again in 2008 about Kuruma Banare, which roughly translates into “demotorization” or “leaving cars.”

In Japan, there is an expectation that exports will continue to the US and that the auto market will pick up there again, but in Japan itself, there seems to be a structural shift away from car ownership.

If we look at sales of motor vehicles in Japan, you can see that at the very least, there is a distinct flagging in sales, and you might understand why automotive executives are worried about Japan as a growth market, or even keeping up its sales numbers as they stand today.

Japanese vehicle sales have not broken the 6 million mark since 1998. Source: Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association, Inc. (JAMA)

One explanation I would propose is the modal context i.e. what driving looks like compared to other options. In Japan, which is highly and increasingly urbanized, driving can be rather miserable. In Tokyo, you need to prove that you have an available parking space before you can buy a car. At the same time, mass transit is abundant and highly efficient. Given this context, is it that surprising that younger people, usually those with less income, find public transit a better overall choice?

Don’t get me wrong, this is not an anti-car rant, but rather I’m trying to point out that there are high costs to owning a car, including taxes, parking, insurance, fuel, maintenance, and so looking beyond the price tag is important. But when I see quotes like the one below, it makes me wonder: do you we need convincing of things that are “great,” or do we buy things that actually are great for our lives and wallets?

“The changes in individuals’ values on cars came cumulatively over time … The change in young people’s attitude toward cars didn’t happen overnight. So we have to keep convincing them cars are great.”    -Nissan COO Toshiyuki Shiga

Tali Trigg About the Author: Energy and transport analyst who believes how you say it is as important as what you say. Opinions are his own. Follow on Twitter @talitrigg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Lacota 12:00 pm 05/16/2014

    This is great news. Now if we can start to redesign our cities to make walking, biking and public transit more convenient and driving less so we will be addressing two problems, AGW and obesity. European cities are already setup this way, although there has been some sprawling suburbs created in the past few decades. It is going to be a difficult shift but I look forward to the day they start tearing down intra-urban freeways as more and more people access cities through public transit.

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  2. 2. zehlyi 12:24 pm 05/17/2014

    This is a guess on my part, but Japan also had much more cell phone use before here. One of the nice things about mass transit is that even if the commute takes the same time or a little longer, you can actually get things done during that time — especially with a smart phone. Much safer than texting while driving!

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  3. 3. oldfarmermac 2:42 am 05/18/2014

    The total cost of car ownership in the US is pricing young people out of the automobile market even as other goods and services are growing in popularity.

    You can buy a lot of other fun and useful things for the five hundred or more bucks a month a car is apt to cost in total if you choose to live where you don’t need one.

    And that five hundred figure is for a relatively cheap car. Any sort of high status model costs considerably more.

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  4. 4. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:30 am 05/20/2014

    The problem is not demonizing cars but making public transport actually viable alternative.

    My city has bus network concentrated in the city centre. Few scant lines go on the outskirts and suburbs, dropping to almost zero in evenings and weekends. And the stupid city council wonders why so many cars are in the city?

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  5. 5. zzzzatthewheel 5:25 pm 05/20/2014

    First you understand that ordinary people can quickly build a criminal record by driving.Second they quickly understand how that information leads to long term employment discrimination. People have fought high fees in combination with low income for as long as they could. Many simply come to understand their rightful place as bikers and welfare recipients. It is not a pleasant day for Americans to bask in the joy of robotic license plate readers and corporate control mechanisms. They are rather bad for employment utilization and it rather saddens me that we would use information and technology in ways that only damage our native citizens and make big people right. Sometimes being right equals being wrong.

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  6. 6. zzzzatthewheel 5:26 pm 05/20/2014

    You should already be able to guess that everyone wants and needs a personal vehicle no less than they require a home and something to eat.

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  7. 7. toilone25 5:32 pm 05/20/2014

    When I lived in Seattle I could ride the bus and be at work in an hour. Going home, however, took 3 hours and if I had to work 15 minutes late I could not get home until 7 a.m. the next morning.

    Where I live now there is no viable public transit unless you are unemployed. There used to be a van pool, but my employer discovered if the van pool left at 5:15, there was no one working in the office at 6:00. They terminated the van pool program.

    On top of that California zoning scatters commercial locations so widely that it takes a 1/4 tank of gas to buy a tank of gas. A mild exaggeration, but only a mild one. Nimbys make public transit impossible.

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  8. 8. E.Nordman 5:52 pm 05/20/2014

    In many urban areas each parking space costs $30-50k to build. There are typically multiple parking spots for each car (store, work, home, gym, etc. Usually someone else is picking up the tab via mandatory free parking.

    When it is not provided as in some urban areas it becomes very expensive to own a car and more an more people decide to do without. The existence of ride share companies has helped enable this decision.
    More people are moving to communities where one can walk or bike for many trips and living with fewer cars per person.

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  9. 9. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:23 am 05/21/2014

    @8
    Usually companies move out from city districts where neither customers nor workforce can reach them. Result: city slums or subsidy-dependent antique districts with no life except tourists.

    Every fool can ban cars, but making public transport actually works is harder.

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  10. 10. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:29 am 05/21/2014

    BTW, fewer young people having cars is not always positive. (Especially not, if it is result of widespread powerty).

    For example, a generation of people grew up with zero contact with nature. They live in city centre and were in the forest maybe three times in their entire life. They have no way to get there. Show them a picture of a buzzard next to Archeopteryx and they don’t know which is the common native bird and which is extinct for 60 million years.

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  11. 11. larkalt 6:16 am 05/21/2014

    @Jerzy
    People can rent cars to get out of the city now and then.
    I haven’t had a car since 1999. I get around on my bicycle. When I really need a car, I rent one or take a taxi.
    People generally have one of two instant negative reactions about biking:
    - they think it’s dangerous because of the cars
    - they think it must be unpleasant because of the lack of A/C or heat.
    They are mostly worried because of a lack of familiarity with biking.
    I hate buses myself, and often wonder as I bike past people waiting at the bus stop, why they don’t ride a bike there.

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  12. 12. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:23 am 05/22/2014

    @larkalt
    Theoretically they can, in practice they don’t. Probably because of hassle of renting a car.

    About biking – it is niche for cities with moderate climate, small area, flat topography and short working hours. Otherwise, I would claim that bike paths often worsen traffic congestion.

    I had misfortune to live in a city which promoted biking. Until the winter came with frost and ice. Every day you saw one or two persons falling from the bike on the street. It was really painful, like living in a some sort of bad dream.

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  13. 13. johnog 1:47 am 05/24/2014

    Being too old to be a “Boomer”, retired and living two miles distant from the Post Office, CVS, UPS, Subway, several banks, a Deli, two dry cleaners, my PCP, and Town Hall, with no Public Transport option, I choose to have a car.
    Of most other necessary commercial entities (restaurants, Super Mkts. gas stations, my wife’s employer, dentist, etc., are within a driving distance (with choices) of under ten miles. I own a car but end up driving 5Kmiles a year. My wife, whose round-trip commute to work is 15-16 miles still has only 120K on a 15 year old Honda Accord Excel WITH MANUAL SHIFT! To steal a phrase from Audi, it and my 2008 Fit HUG corners quite well.
    My explanation we drive only when necessary, and typically buy perishables that can be refrigerated if they can’t last a week. Oh, I can walk to my homeowner’s association pool and tennis courts(?).

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