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.

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.

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