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Peak car (wikipedia.org)
210 points by edward on May 3, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 134 comments

I'm part of this phenomenon. I don't own a car but instead cycle to work, use public transport a lot, taxis, and, on the rare occasions I need to drive myself, Zipcar. There are a lot of things I like about Zipcar but I'll point out two that are not directly economic: I don't need to worry about the car once I've finished with it (a real concern in a big city with vandalism, theft) and I can rent different size cars (5 seater for normal times, 7 seater if I have lots of guests).

I fear we are part of a small self-selecting group that has chosen the convenience to living in densely populated, well connected cities and are relatively well-off. I doubt you'll hear a lot about "peak car" outside these small groups or areas.

For many, I suspect the car represents a great deal of freedom in exactly the same way that not owning a car means to this self-selecting group: making a decent living, access and comfort, etc.

The real aim to force the decline of car use is sustainability, efficiency and equality. It's not going to happen without huge investments and will affect the whole economy negatively for decades, which is why Governments shy away from doing anything very serious about it.

In the meantime, I'm also happy to not own a car, cycle to work, etc. But if I lived outside central London I would get one immediately.

> I doubt you'll hear a lot about "peak car" outside these small groups or areas.

On the contrary, I think the prosperity evident in rural areas that can afford high ratios of car ownership is itself a small, self-selecting group of very well-off countries. If you broaden your view to the rest of the world, peak car doesn't look so silly after all.

A car is a much bigger investment in the developing world than it is in developed nations. Technology will enable more and more people in these nations to get more and more of their life done without the need to own an automobile.

We may see a saturation profile in the small part of the world where cars are both small investments and big conveniences, and a peak profile everywhere else. Which is, on the whole, a peak profile.

Yet in nations that have recently moved into the income levels needed for automobiles their usage has exploded. China, India, and a few others, all seem to be burgeoning car markets.

I think one area over looked in their study of people streaming into and out of cities is the less need for the city itself to provide for the needs of the people. Combine that with all the congestion style pricing and it drives development outside of the city where those who cannot afford the entry costs.

Reminds me of desktop computers vs. smartphones. Laptops may soon be a luxury/tool for techies that most people just don't need.

I fear we are part of a small self-selecting group that has chosen the convenience to living in densely populated, well connected cities

I think there's also the issue of differing definitions of "convenience." I used to live in a city where I walked or used public transit to get everywhere. Now I live in a suburb and drive everywhere, and I find most of the things I like to do MORE convenient. Yeah, in the city it was easy to walk to bars and restaurants, but I don't eat out that much, and I'm beyond the age where I want to hang out in bars.

As just one example, I like to cook at home, and grocery shopping when I have to carry everything in my arms is a pain in the butt. I know people like to talk about how much fresher your food is when you buy just what you need every day, and that sounds great, but I have a lot of other things going on in my life. Having to plan time to go to the grocery store every day after work is a hassle. Being able to drive five minutes to the store, park easily, and carry my stuff home in my trunk, is vastly more convenient than what I did when I lived in the city.

Having lived both ways for several years, I will never willingly go back to living in a densely populated city.

I agree with this. I can drive to a store, buy what I want, and then drive home faster than friends of mine who live in San Francisco can even get on a bus to get to their destination. Walking around through crowded urban streets carrying valuable items you just purchased is also sub-ideal. I can buy things that are large or small, or that require refrigeration: no difference. I can make multiple stops without having to carry a ton of stuff through all my subsequent stops, as I can leave the stuff in my car.

My car is essentially a portable home I get to take with me wherever I am: it has first aid equipment, it has water and snacks, and secure storage. If you are optimizing for convenience, the correct choice is to separate things by networks of roads and use cars: that's why they exploded in popularity. You do want to live near where you work, but most of the people commuting long enough distances to make that matter are doing that due to economic issues (cost of living), not due to fundamental requirements for car deployment.

The issue is just that it isn't sustainable: it uses too much energy at too high an externality cost for us all to have this amazing level of convenience. It requires too much land to be paved and too much oil to be burned. But people should not confuse sustainability with convenience: dense urban areas that are not conducive to cars are not "convenient". To the extent to which people who live in them think they are convenient, it is because they don't understand most of the downsides they know about to cars are caused by dense urban environments.

>> '...dense urban areas that are not conducive to cars are not "convenient'."

I'm carless here in the city, and my very heavy groceries from two different stores are about to be delivered by Instacart. I'm lounging around in my PJ's. If this isn't convenient I don't know what is.

On the other hand, if you can walk five minutes to the store, it's insanely easy to keep a tiny pantry full of fresh stuff. Especially if, like me, you're lucky enough to have a weekly farmer's market two blocks from your place.

But like you said, different people have different definitions of "convenience".

It certainly is no easier than someone who can drive less than five minutes to a store: that person can both keep a tiny pantry full of fresh stuff or buy massive loads of bulk items without issue. Essentially, you have made an argument for why "it isn't so bad, as you can mitigate some of the downsides", but haven't shown a situation where it is actually more "convenient" (which I emphasize, as it is all sorts of other things, such as more "sustainable").

Five minutes is too little time too warrant a car drive, usually it's actually 10 minute door-to-door when you are talking about a car transportation. But sure if you live in a wasteland of parking spaces and highways I guess it might be faster.

Would a same-day delivery service change that for you? (I'm thinking of Amazon's offering but there are others.)

There are also those that live in developed world selected groups. I live in Beijing and would love a car, but a parking spot goes for a few hundred thousand dollars, the car itself would be $50-60k, and I would still need to get lucky in the license plate lottery. Well, at least taxis are cheap and ubiquitous.

I wonder why you would love to own a car, given the other problems you've pointed out.

Freedom and convenience compared to other transit options.

You're absolutely right. I understand "peak car" as trying to get away from unreasonable car use. Like in the US where one has to use a car for trips that one could easily walk, if only there were sidewalks.

I think one of the major causes of "peak car" is that, as cars become saturated, alternatives begin to come online as cities try to relieve pressure -- and once those alternatives (sidewalks, public transportation, bike lanes, etc.) have a critical mass of users, they enter the public consciousness as acceptable alternatives, and they begin to have more resources poured into them. When your area gets adequate sidewalks, you can get away from unreasonable car use, and your use of the new sidewalks encourages more sidewalk construction, etc.

I think you're right that this is a factor. What it doesn't quite explain is the decline of car usage in European cities that have always had sidewalks and good public transportation and where cycling isn't much easier now than it was 30 years ago. There seems to be a cultural change in attitude too. Cars are not as cool anymore as they used to be.

I think many European cities have seen changes in the past twenty years. Better cycling lanes, easy bicycle rental, increased public transit density and availability (eg late at night).

Not to mention lots of financial discouragement (i.e. tolls and taxes) for driving inside the city.

Yes, I forgot about petrol prices, which have increased substantially.

I'm not so sure about infrastructure improvements, at least here in Germany. I have been cycling for more than 20 years, and the infrastructure has not changed that much. Some places have improved a bit (especially in the last 5 years), but some are worse too. I feel that the experience is largely the same here. It may be different in places like Paris or London, though.

I lived and cycled in London the last 3 years, and there is a steady drumbeat of cycling improvements at all levels. Whether it's the congestion charge, cycle hire scheme, bike lanes, or even physically reconfiguring junctions with an explicitly stated goal of improving bicycle safety, there are major changes happening there.

I'm not sure how much change is happing on the continent, but based on some stories I've seen, there are many cities pushing the envelope, I think even within Germany (probably depends on the city?).

Even with the improvements you mention, London is still not exactly the most bicycle-friendly city in Europe, which is a little surprising since it's flat as a pancake. You should try cycling in Amsterdam or Copenhagen for a comparison.

> small self-selecting group that has chosen the convenience to living in densely populated, well connected cities

Urbanization is steadily increasing worldwide.

> and are relatively well-off.

If you live in a city, owning a car is more expensive than not.

Living close enough to the places you want to get to, however, often means buying/renting more expensive housing. This can more than offset what you save by not having a car.

I used to be part of this phenomenon. First, I lived in the city center where owning/using a car is just a drag. Then I moved to the suburbs and still resisted buying one as a matter of principle. But a little less than two years ago, I made the transition and now I happily own a car.

The reason?

1) Public transport in my city sucks.

2) The shopping infrastructure has moved out of the center of my community to the edges.

And it's not like I didn't try. As I said above, for quite a number of years I refused to use a car even after I moved out of the city center because I was convinced that individual car usage just isn't sustainable. But as I get older, I feel my spare time becoming more and more valuable. And in my particular case, going to and from work takes >1h each way, while with the car it's a good 20 minutes drive, saving me about 1h20 per day. This is because my work is in another suburb which by public transport you can only get to by first going into the city center and then out again. With the car, you can circumvent the city completely. (Unfortunately, the part of town where my work is is not a very nice place to live, or else I could probably bike.)

The second part is shopping. When I was younger, I would just walk to the next store and buy the few items I would need that day. But I was single back then. Now, there aren't any stores in walking distance any more, but my partner and I also require more stuff than when I lived alone.

I still believe it's a bad idea that every household owns more than one car on average. And I've always wondered: of all of the privately owned cars in this country, how many are actually moving at any given point in versus how many are parked?

But I have kind of given up hope that broad acceptance of public transport would become the norm "automatically", simply because people should realize that individual traffic is unsustainable. Now I think the only way this will ever become a reality is through force -- namely, governmental regulation. Of course, this is not on anybody's agenda at this point (anybody in power, I mean) and will not be in any foreseeable time. I don't believe individual car use will experience a measurable reduction in my life time, sadly.

What's so bad about a household owning more than one car? Suppose I work 20 miles North of where I live, and my SO works 20 miles South of where we live. Should we really carpool that?

If you're talking about individual traffic being environmentally unsustainable, I'd argue that we should focus as much on improving car/energy technology as we should on developing public transit. People do not want to commit or be forced into lifestyle changes. Rather than trying to make them drive less, it makes sense to reduce the impact of driving.

> Rather than trying to make them drive less, it makes sense to reduce the impact of driving.

You can only build so much road. After that, you start increasing the cost of using shared infrastructure to drive down demand (congestion tolling).

> how many are actually moving at any given point in versus how many are parked?

Doesn't most (like >80% in normal usage) of the depreciation cost incur while the car is moving, as opposed to being parked?

I live in Europe and have never even considered getting a car. In cities the bike is the fastest mode of transport anyway, and for longer distances it's quite convenient to take the train.

I live in Europe and I can't imagine not owning a car. My city has quite good public transportation, but the flexbility and independence of car wins all the time. Using bus+train it takes me 1h to get to work one way, while by car it takes me 15m, additionally I do grocery shopping and other things on the way home. Time saving isn't however the major reason, but the feeling that I can go whenever I want, wherever I want.

Fair enough. What you describe sounds much like I feel about bikes. Taking the bus and train to work takes over 30 minutes, while the bike ride is just 10 minutes. Going by car would certainly take more than 10 minutes here.

Someone once said to me that he feels amputated without a bike, which really hits the nail on the head.

I live in Europe and i own a car, but don't use it to commute. It takes 10 minutes by bus and 15+ by car. Plus it takes min 10 EUR a day to park my car in the city. And the bus is free.

Where do you live and have free buses?

Residents of Tallinn doesn't pay for public transport in the city.

It's hard to beat a motorcycle over longer city distances, however.

IMO a scooter is the best city transportation. I can pretty much get anywhere from anywhere in London in under 30 minutes. My commute from Victoria Park to Clerkenwell is 13 minutes. Google suggests 20 minutes to cycle; I reckon an athlete who ignored red lights could just about keep up, but they'd be sprinting in between the places they'd have to give way.

Electric bikes make that sprinting easy - so easy it feels like walking. I walk, (e)bike, motorbike and drive my car. Short trips are almost all bike now, car is for transport of large things and motorbike for longer trips.

As an urban planner (well, PhD student now), the utility of electric bikes strikes me as obscenely high. We know that the vast majority of urban trips are < 3 miles--with a goodly portion under 1. Yet, so many people make these trips by car. A bike is very much more efficient, and often much faster if there is any congestion.

Electric bikes remove one major barrier people have, namely the arrive sweaty after a hill climb factor. I hear other bicyclists claim that this is less karmic because of exercise, but I view it differently. We know that, controlling for type of infrastructure, the prevalence of bicycling is strongly correlated with improved safety. The plausible explanation I subscribe to is that, with increased numbers, drivers are more accustomed to looking for bicyclists, and that bicyclists are better able to establish good group norms about how to ride safely. And of course increased numbers also mean that there is more political will to add more bicycling infrastructure, which in turn generates more bicycling. Electric assist bikes help with all aspects of this, with the exception of getting the maximum amount of exercise on every trip.

I'd love to see a business model that figures out how to 1. create a desirable electric bike brand 2. Have a low-barrier-to-entry rental or lease mode 3. Handles maintenance in a frictionless, reassuring way--perhaps with roadside emergency support 4. Has great on boarding for how to ride safely and confidently, perhaps coordinating with local bike clubs for instruction and personalized route planning.

This is not really taking the original discussion forward, but 20 minutes vs. 13 minutes is quite a difference when calculating average speed.

I probably made a mistake here, but using "google", distance from Victoria Park to Clerkenwell is 3.2 miles, 5.14km. If it takes 13 minutes, the average speed is about ~24km/h. To make the same distance in 20 minutes, you can drop your average speed down to ~15.5km/h. And that is not so "high speed" for cycling.

Funny fact, I put "average biking speed" to "google" and it told me that: For cyclists in Copenhagen, the average cycling speed is 15.5 km/h.

So I guess google uses 15.5km/h to calculate the time used to move the distance by bike.

I live in Europe and while I can get around without a car, owning a car improves my standard of living quite a lot. I guess the point is "I live in Europe" says nothing about how easy it's to get by without owning a car.

Yes, that was poorly worded. Europe is big. I meant to say that there are places (specifically in Europe), where it's perfectly possible to go through one's whole life without a owning car and without missing out.

My in-laws live in a village a bit outside Nuremberg. In the 11+ years visiting them on a regular basis, I've seen the closing of small markets in favor of US style supermarkets. These stores are often further outside the town/city center. What was walkable becomes less so.

I've seen a similar trend where my brother-in-law lives outside Munich as well as some other towns where friends are.

For things like commuting, the train can make some sense, but for short trips to a market that is no longer walkable? A car may be more desirable.

Me too. 1972 to 2014: 1 million miles driven. 2015: 0.

Separately, my bicycle & public transport are poor alternatives. But combined, they are incredible. With my bike & a metro pass, I can get anywhere, sometimes more quickly than with a private car.

And now I never worry about: going to the gym, car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas, parking, and most of all, other drivers on their cell phones.

You should definitely worry about other drivers on their cell phones if you're on a bike. If another driver hits you while you're driving, it damages the car. If that driver hits you while you're biking, it damages you.

I'm fortunate enough to be able to walk to work, and never drive, but also stopped biking because it is so dangerous. Not only do you need to be doubly wary of other drivers, you need to watch for people getting out of parked cars, other cyclists, and pedestrians only paying attention to their phones.

Thing is, I should probably be most worried about heart disease, but because I bike to and from work, that's not a major risk factor for me.

Traffic injuries/fatalities are more likely if you bike, cariovascular disease is less likely if you bike. I suspect my overall annual risk of mortality drops when I make the trade-off, as my bike commute isn't along any particularly dangerous roads.

At least MMM agrees that your overall mortality risk drops when biking:


Mikael Colville-Andersen's TEDx talk is what first got me thinking about this: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxCopenhagen-Mikael-Colvill...

(I don't think biking without a helmet is better than biking with, as the title suggests, but I wouldn't be surprised if helmet laws/media campaigns are harmful.)

No gym because you cycle, or because it's easy?

I'm part of it, not because I don't own a car, but rather because I drive it very little.

I work from home and I'm a bit of a recluse--but even those places I do travel with any frequency are all within probably 3 miles.

I think I probably average about 20 miles per week.

I am soon going to be out of this - I have more money now and while a car isn't required for daily transportation I have family outside the city that I want to be able to visit more often and moving larger purchases in a bus is a real pita.

Almost everyone gets a car when they have children, in the UK it is considered a necessity. However not so many people are starting families when compared to former times, they are starting later too. What this means is fewer purchases of family cars and all those journeys to shops and schools.

We are also creatures of habit so we stick to the transport we know. What happens when previous generations literally clog up all the roads with their cars so there is no room for the cars that a new generation would potentially own? I think that this has happened, owning a car would be impossible in many parts of most city or town centres. If not actually impossible, just very expensive or a lot of hassle when it comes to parking. Why go through all of that when you can just hop on buses and trains, to catch up with games/reading/emails on the phone/tablet?

Once you have a generation that have settled in to using public transport or cycling the barrier to entry for motoring is quite high and there is no peer pressure or real benefit to having a car - unless a family comes along.

Whilst pockets of 'peak car' may exist in cities realising that the car is totally impracticable, there will be growth in more pointless journeys between pointless places beyond the realms of suburbia. Outside the cities there is universal belief that you have to learn to drive as soon as possible, getting a job would be impossible without an ability to drive there. Hence inexorable growth, a long way to 'peak car'.

However, this is about car use rather than car ownership - I agree that owning a car is still regarded as normal for parents but I see a lot of people, including my own family, behaving in ways that reduces the amount we drive. There are a lot of factors in this including improving public transport (e.g. I rather like the trams here in Edinburgh even though the project to install them was a fiasco), greater use of cycles - including people taking young kids on bikes, very strict new drink driving laws here in Scotland, reduction of parking spaces in city centers, park and ride schemes round cities etc.

This is based on old data, but when I was working in energy consulting the number of miles driven per registered vehicle did not change much from year to year except when there were supply disruptions. Also, miles driven was an estimate based on hard numbers like the number of registered vehicles so not a great indicator. Here is some recent info on US vehicle registration:


> However not so many people are starting families when compared to former times,

This has not been the case for quite a while, and I would claim the opposite: there are more newborns in 2015 than in any year since 1971.

Is that adjusted per capita? Of course the raw number is higher because of the population growth.

I understood peak car to mean total number of cars, not cars per capita. (wikipedia seems inconsistent on this point but does indicate per capita, so I apologise)

Obviously this doesn't apply as far back, then, but it still applies. I'll leave the calculation as an exercise.

This is really long-term trend. First they thought at would plateau at 1 car per household, then 2 cars per household, then 1 car per licensed driver, and as it blew through all those "round numbers" (in the US) no one really knew where it was going to stop. Cars per capita (or per household or per driver) peaking is a big deal even if population doesn't peak for another few decades.

This is so relevant. In Sweden, there is currently (for the last 15 years or so) a big push to build new and bigger motorways. At the same time, Bil Sweden, the Swedish interest organization for motor traffic, publishes statistics on the share of the population having a driver's license.[1]

Ever since I found this document I've been convinced of the decline of driving. The statistics are per age group, and the only age groups where the population share with a driver's license are still increasing are 67 years and up. All the rest seem to have peaked during the last 15 years. 18 year olds are the exception, where there is a small increase during the last few years. Still, it's at around 30% up from 25% ca 10 years ago, while it was 50% in 1989.

Cars are so old school. And the explosion engine is just... Well it feels like steam punk to me. I just don't get the fascination. This is from a guy who's currently working to get a license, since I moved back out to my family's farm from the city. I still view it as good to have, not something that excites me at all.

[1] http://www.bilsweden.se/statistik/korkort

> Cars are so old school. And the explosion engine is just... Well it feels like steam punk to me. I just don't get the fascination.

A lot of people don't "get" my fascination with programming. Others don't "get" my fascination with American football. Others don't "get" my fascination for living in population sparse areas.

There's nothing to "get" other than the fact that all have different likes and dislikes. Some people like cars for their freedom, for their solitude and/or for their speed. Maybe there are other reasons too!

Of course, and that's ok with me. I guess I'm coming from a place where it was expected for a boy to be fascinated with mopeds, tractors, cars, cranes, anything with an engine. Not that there aren't many in my generation who, like me, never shared that fascination, but it was still expected, or it felt like that in a way, you get me?

And to not like that, and not even get a driver's license (regardless of whether you really need it, or a car, having access to great public transport and communications and whatnot), making certain people - in your own family, even - disregard you automatically, like you're not actually a man, or you're not actually grown up.

I've come to terms with all that now, and I understand it way better than when I was in my twenties and younger, but it still exists, and again, to me it's just weird.

To clarify, I don't look down on e.g. my father for not "getting" computers and the Internet, even though I know it would be a great resource for him. I get the feeling that it's not mutual, though.

Also, driving just sucks. Absolutely nobody I know looks forward to getting in their car and driving somewhere. Why? Because they all live in reasonably dense urban locations where traffic ranges from "absolute nightmare" (weekdays, 7-10am and 3-7pm) and "pretty awful" (all other times).It's surprisingly emotionally and physically draining. I'm much happier sitting in the back of a bus with my book, even if it takes twice as long. Add a nice bicycle to the mix for around town stuff, and the huge amount of money you save by not owning a car, and I can easily see why nobody in our generation desires one.

(Of course this is all about the U.S.; my experience driving around Sweden was mile after mile of forest and open road!).

I read an article by a good journalist and nonfiction writer about “Peak ___”.

On one hand, I think it’s an interesting concept for annotating historical events that are likely to happen. On the other hand, i think the “peak oil” idea of an inevitable supply crisis was generally poorly explained and understood.

On the positive side, if we start by identifying relevant historical Peak X points, we might get something useful. Cars are a technology. Does technology peak? Have we passed “Peak Agriculture?” Will there be a “Peak Literacy?”

We need a better historical account of how things peak for this perspective to be useful for anything but long term business strategy.


Cars aren't comparable to literacy or agriculture. The equivalent there would be transportation in general. Cars as a specific form of transportation certainly could peak. Horses and sailing ships did.

Doesn't the "Peak ___" construction imply that the thing becomes less desirable as a result of its saturation? Horses and sailing ships didn't become less used because they were overused, they became less used because something sufficiently better came along. There was no real "peaking" for those items as far as I can tell.

No I think it just means that we will not hit that level of usage again.

Some of the confusion is primary and secondary effects.

All finite resources in a growing economy have a similar shaped (plus or minus technology) peak. So that's phosphate rock fertilizer, oil, various grades of coal (anthracite is basically gone already). You can also peak infinite / renewable resources like northern atlantic cod which are basically extinct now. Or buffalo, etc. Its interestingly fractal in that the smaller graphs of small producers look the same as graphs for other small producers and the overall system-wide graph. So the graph of Texas oil which peaked in the early 70s looks about like Mexico's graph looks like the world graph, all peaking at different dates, which is interesting.

As a secondary effect once you peak fertilizer and oil production, the secondary industries will peak. Refineries obviously follow oil production. But, modern industrial ag is heavily dependent on chemical fertilizer (which will peak) and oil (fuel, sprays, simple transport...)

Colloquially "peak" seems to be confused (intentionally, by some?) with short term downward market fluctuations. So obviously they'll never, ever be a peak in oil production because the market cost fluctuated downward recently for a short period of time, LOL.

For cars you need oil and iron, both of which you can eventually use up, so aside from all other arguments its possible. But a cultural or economic shift can mask that. So the wikipedia article is full of weird assertions that increasing the average GDP per capita must result in increased miles traveled because income inequality doesn't exist (LOL). Locally decreasing the number of "can afford a car" jobs from 2 million to 1.5 million will dramatically decrease road traffic, even if the average income for the area explodes because the 1% are richer than ever because its not like they're going to drive extra miles to celebrate.

For literacy there doesn't seem to be an inherent finite resource we can use up to eliminate literacy. So traditional logistical peak doesn't seem possible. In the colloquial sense of peak meaning "a short term downturn" that is pretty trivial.

So you've listed all three possibilities, a finite resource that can peak, a secondary industry that depends on peakable finite resources, and something that can't possibly have a logistical peak because there is no finite resource to exhaust.

You pretty much nailed it.

Just a small nitpick. I don't think lack of phosphates is going to be a bottleneck in our lifetimes. There's plenty of lower grade sources available. If nothing else, just recycling our excrement.

All this doesn't mean our lives need to be less happy. We will need to do with less, unless major technological breakthroughs are on their way.

"There's plenty of lower grade sources available."

Energy intensity always goes up with lower grade sources. Its not just raw "jackhammer power" or whatever the material is pumped or drilled out with, but all the related costs of transport and especially labor. For example if you need to pay your employees enough to survive during an era of $400/barrel oil, then that resource may simply be un extractable. Too many economic projections are based on absolutely everything staying the way it is other than... (insert commodity) increasing price to 5 times current price. Well good luck not affecting everything else including especially process input materials.

That ties in with the level of socioeconomic stability a resource needs. Perhaps that exotic shale refinery is theoretically economically exploitable at a mere $250/barrel oil, but there's a slight problem in that the society/culture/economy needs to be stable enough to build it and it won't be stable enough at $250, perhaps it needs to average well under $100/barrel to create the infrastructure and trained skilled workers required to build and operate the facility... So if the price is low enough for society to be stable enough to build and operate the plant, it won't work economically, and if the price is high enough to build and operate the plant financially, society and the greater economy will be in complete ruins so it can't be built or operated. In your example the only way to afford refining phosphate out of raw seawater or whatever would involve raising the price until everyone is dead of starvation, at which point there's little purpose in a perfectly operating plant other than as some sort of interstellar robotic art exhibit, or more realistically its hard to build a plant when a famine inspired nuclear war is happening overhead at the same time and the place you needed to order drill bits from on the other side of the planet just got nuked.

This is aside from the aesthetic issues. So if there were 95% unemployment, then we'd have enough starving workers to, I donno, create a "chunnel" all the way under/across the atlantic ocean or something. With the obvious disadvantage that no matter how cool that mega project would be in theory all by itself, it requires 95% unemployement, of course, which isn't all that appealing when considered in toto. So the aesthetic issue is you might have to strip mine a national park or two when obtaining that low grade ore, perhaps.

(Edited to add: And this is what collapse actually looks like. Real collapse, not hollywood.)

I was talking about phosphates. Not about oil.

We are definitely way past peak employment in agriculture.

That’s a good argument in favour of complexity and nuance, rather than sloganized Big Ideas.

To get anything usefully true out of it we need to break it down and itemise.

Are we ?

I don't know either way but the countries with fastest population growth tend to be ones with lots of agriculture.

Lots of agriculture, yes. But as productivity improves, everyone needs less people working in agriculture.

Here are some graphs over time: http://ourworldindata.org/data/food-agriculture/agricultural...

I'm interested in total numbers, not proportion of the population.

Read further. They have those, too.

Only because they are the least developed. Each country has its own peak agri though e.g. China had its in the 70s.

The article lists San Francisco as having total vehicle kilometers traveled as having declined "-4.8%"; but I would be more interested in seeing the suburbs, too; does it matter if local city centers are declining if the surrounding suburbs are all increasing?

I work in SF, and I don't drive any miles in SF. But I drive ~35 miles daily to get to the public transport (CalTrain[1]). There's a less-driving-time public transit route to work, but it doubles to triples the commute time, which is unacceptable.

That said, I also don't "commute solo" … the difference between the HOV and non-HOV lanes is too great.

I also lived in Providence, RI, for a bit; there the transit system suffered two interesting "failures":

1. it was quicker for me to not take the bus that went right in front of my house; walking was routinely faster. This was mostly because…

2. the bus I was connecting from arrived 2 minutes after my connection had left.

(and if you're going to encourage _more_ people to trade driving for public transit, CalTrain is going to need more capacity; trains are routinely full: i.e., there is so little room that it is difficult to board the train, let alone sit.)

If your work is within walking/running/cycling distance I think those options essentially always win over anything else in densely populated areas.

I recently spent half a year in central London, 6 km from home to work. I would run or longboard it in < 40 minutes one way, taking the tube or bus took > 60 minutes door-to-door, so even including a quick shower running was faster. If you count in the money saved on not taking the tube, not needing a gym membership, and the time saved by not having to do any workouts after you come home from work, it's a big win.

I did have to limit myself to 3 days running a week (2 days longboarding), or my knees started complaining. Also, London: fix your goddamned pavements, they are un-bloody-skateboardable. We have invented concrete and asphalt, you don't need to use cobblestones everywhere.

> 2. the bus I was connecting from arrived 2 minutes after my connection had left.

This was basically 100% of the buses in San Diego. Most of the [quite large] county is theoretically transit accessible but they appeared to have used some sort of de-optimization program which ensured that every connection incurred the maximum wait.

It is only mildly interesting to note that cars are declining in the single most bike/walk-friendly climate in America. The rest of the nation has weather to contend with.

This makes no sense unless the distribution between rural vs. urban populations changes. If most of the projected population growth (to 10bb people by 2083 [1]) happens in areas where there is mass transit, then great - this seems plausible. If the % of the population growth continues to be what it is today (close to 50/50 [2]), then this just cannot be plausible. 5bb people in 2083 is unlikely to be result in fewer than the number of drivers that there are on the roads right now (roughly 1bb) [3].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_growth [2] http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/world-... [3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motor_vehicle

Matt Yglesias's recent article on how car commuting is actually on the rise in the US: http://www.vox.com/2015/4/29/8505097/car-commuting

Was surprised when I read that. He also ascribed some of the misperception to a young urban journalist echo chamber effect.

Cross country, UK public transport is a shambles. As far as I can tell, it excels at two use cases - infrequent journeys and/or too poor to own a car, or so rich that the cost is irrelevant.

A cross country train here essentially has to be booked in advance. Random example - London to York, ~200mi journey, £110 anytime single ticket one way.

And that's for a single person. Add in a partner, friends or children and watch the fares explode into the stratosphere.

This nonsense doesn't happen on the London Underground, or on a local bus.

Basically, public transport turns life into a game of 'what will I do in x weeks time?'... the only people that really buy tickets for 'now' are business travellers and the elite.

It bothers me that the only reason I really want a car is for the journeys that are actually the most trivial to solve. A train ticket from A to B should never cost more than fuel and depn that a car would use from A to B. Yet it does. eh.

(If you book weeks in advance it's sort of OK. But that's not life. Not a life I want to live, anyway.)

Heh. Just had a look at travelling to my hometown for a weekend. A few days out. Few hundred miles. 160GBP return. To me that's basically a troll fare. It's basically matching the fuel and depreciation on a new van, except one person can make the journey with a suitcase or two. Ace.

When I was travelling with my SO we ended up in Manchester and needed to get to London. I can't remember the exact fare but it was something like 150 pounds each for the one way train ride ($580 AUD total) vs a similar length trip in Australia which would have been about $110 AUD total.

A complete rip-off IMO.

It really is just hilariously broken. I do not understand it.

Many people seem to hanker for re-nationalisation of the railways. I just want to see sensible business methods really.

If you price railway tickets reasonably you have a potential market of millions. Perhaps even 10M+. If you price them as toys for the rich, everyone drives cars. What is going on here? Bonkers.

I take budget coaches because they let me book at short notice, often at 1/5th the price or less.

>The theory is disputed by the UK Department for Transport, which predicts that road traffic in the United Kingdom will grow by 50% over the coming 25 years

Any insight as to why they would predict this if road traffic empirically has been flat since the nineties?

Because their budget is dependent on their own forecast of road traffic?

Not as simple as that I don't think. Despite figures about decline in road traffic, there is a big division between London, where the traffic decline has been most (indeed, Wikipedia provides no ex-London numbers) and the rest of the country, where public transport is much worse. For example half the bus journeys in England took place in London.

The UK currently buys more new cars than anywhere else in Europe as well, partly due to credit availability, but clearly there is demand, and there is a huge pro road pro motorist lobby, as is clear when fuel taxes are increased.

So I think the DoT have ended up reflecting largely this pro car part of the UK.

I buy new cars in the uk using credit but don't drive them much. My baseline miles per week is 0. Occasionally we use our car at the weekend. Still, I buy a brand new expensive car every few years. I guess I just old enough to.be effected by the idea of the car as a status symbol, but young enough to be caught up in urbanism.

So you rent a status symbol to put outside your house? What an easy thing to just stop doing.

Gosh you're right, I'll do it right now! Thanks!

Get yourself one of these instead http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Headington_Shark

I see it often enough already. In fact, I'd rather it was on someone else's house. I would forget it was up there if it was on my own.

That's you but statistically behavior and wealth like yours is a blip.

Its hardly a matter of being wrong one year and accurate the next. They make wrong predictions every single year. Here's the US:


Note the careful editing to not show numerous historical examples where pre-90 or so, any negative fluctuation was a statistical fluke or a short term downterm, promptly made up. So pre-90 or so, it was always correct to extend the trendline at the average growth line.

Admitting the party is over would offend very powerful monied interests. Follow the money... a lot of money is made building and selling exurbs, and a minor secondary industry is going to have political problems stating the high level policy change of "the party is over". A mayor, governor, president needs to state the policy change before the pothole filler is permitted to observe it. You see this phenomena in economic figures and in the meta selection of economic figures (the Dow, the unemployment rate, the GDP, the .gov inflation rate all used to "mean something" to the lifestyle of the general population. Not so any more, they are meaningless now in practice.)

Worth noting that this is the same Department for Transport that is surprisingly keen on high speed rail links like HS2.

[I'm in Scotland where good old low speed rail seems to having a resurgence the new (re-opened) line from Edinburgh down to the Borders looks fantastic - I'm kicking myself for not buying a house in Heriot a few years back].

Well, having worked in travel demand forecasting--a combination of bad statistical models, bad assumptions about travel, and the inherent problems with extrapolating to produce forecasts. Travel modeling is very useful, but long term forecasts can't really account for fundamental market shifts.

In my region, Central Puget Sound, long term forecasts have been thrown some pretty big monkey wrenches since people started trying to use numbers with cars. Women entering the workforce, later Microsoft becoming a thing, etc. Oddly, some historic forecasts actually turned out reasonably well... probably by accident.

It's interesting that most of the countries with observed post-peak-car figures are relatively advanced countries, but most of which have had very good public mass-transit for a very long time. Yet the downturn didn't really occur until around 1994.

It's important to realize that this peak has occurred not just after the construction of mass-transit systems, but after the widespread availability of the internet has allowed for telecommuting.

I live in a not-super-well connected suburb mass-transit wise, but my whole area has Fios. Because of that I've basically worked from home for the last 5-6 years. My most recent job even has a corporate policy favoring telecommuting because it lets them keep facility costs low. We have to come in 2-3 days a week for face-to-face meetings and other coordinating activities, but they offer robust remote access solutions, BYOD, etc. and make it very welcoming and easy to telecommute.

I've recently become surprised at how many of my neighbors work for places with similar policies.

Yes: the main driver in car usage decline is better software and networking.

You already named remote work, but it does not end there.

There are remote games, remote movies (Netflix, YouTube), remote shopping (Amazon), remote communities (HN), etc.

I'm curious what happens with driverless cars. Do people go more places without the hassle of actually driving? Do car miles go up because the cars drive in circles in lieu of parking? Or does it go down because we view driving as a variable cost more than fixed?

This doesn't really take into consideration the growing middle classes in developing nations who will soon be able to afford automobiles.

I was thinking this as well. Car use seems to grow with industrialization and spread, then apparently shrinks with automation and urbanization. And if you look at the population that is entering into more general industrialization you see growing market for cars.

As long as we have suburbs we cannot erradicate cars: suburbs lifestyle imply that we use cars.

So the decline of cars proves the decline of suburbs. Thank god.

Apart from their energy intensiveness, what is wrong with the suburbs?

I grew up in suburbia, and I remember fresh air, open spaces and low crime. I get that suburbs can be boring for some people, but a lot of people I knew growing up chose to return to the suburbs after living in bigger cities, or never left.

I have read that it is a form of guilt and sour grapes. I order to not admit their privilege, people who grew up in suburbs say they are bad. And people who couldn't afford suburbs say they are bad. And rich people who can afford a comfortable life in a city, they are right but jerks.

Not necessarily - in America yes that is the way things work at the moment, but not all over the world. There are may suburbs with good public transport where having a car is less necessary.

It's very difficult to have sustainable/economical public transportation with the population density existent in the suburbs.

It's not necessarily impossible.

Some big Australian cities work reasonably well with 'cars optional' suburb. They have an overall feel and lifestyle that I imagine would be familiar and comfortable enough for most American suburb dwellers.

For a quick and dirty snapshot: Suburbs are considered similar to small 'urban towns.' They typically have a train station (some Sydney suburbs have cool ferry stations) at the centres and the suburb stretches for a 1-2 mile radius from there. They are usually denser and have a more town center feel near the center. Inner city suburbs feel more urban. The really distant suburbs are more car centric and often have a semi-rural feel. Suburbs on the Dandenong foothills in Melbourne are a cool example of this.

Basically the nearer the city centre and suburb centre you live, the less cars are necessary or convenient. It's not extreme though. Most people have cars everywhere but the level of use varies. I would estimate that >50% live someplace where car free living is possible without too many trade offs.

Realistically though, the way to prevent cars is to make them unaffordable. That's an option, but I don't think you can call it a victory for quality of life by itself if it's achieved by making something people want unaffordable.

You are talking about something that has very little to do with the population density and zoning of an American midwestern suburb: What we mean is something like this, where having no car makes you a second class citizen.


What you call a suburb is more like what in Spain are called 'ciudades dormitorio': Small towns with a much higher population density than the american suburb, and that have good communications with downtown. People live less than a mile away from a train station that drops them in a public transportation hub in downtown Madrid. It's still a suburb, but it has absolutely nothing to do with what an American describes.

They are called the same in English: bedroom town.

There are lots of high population density suburbs outside the United States.

Two examples:



What s sustainable and economical public transport? And what is that population density? Are US suburbs less dense than European ones? Or is there less Will to publicly finance public transport? Funding road construction with tax money but not having a public transport system on those roads with 50-100% tax funding is just asking for congestion, sprawl and pollution.

I live in a smallish suburb with mostly single family houses 30 minutes by bus from the city. Buses leave every 10 minutes, and every 2-3 minutes during commute hours. I would never commute by car, especially since the buses use bus lanes.

If it's dense enough to support good public transit, it's probably an urban residential neighborhood rather than a suburb.

I think this is really about the decline of miles driven in cars, not the decline in cars made or owned (although that connection surely exists). I live in a suburb and have a car, because having a house almost requires a car; hauling paint and wood and plants and things doesn't really work in public transport. That said I commute by public transport simply because it is faster (bus lanes and subway instead of traffic jams) and parking in the city would be over $100/day. So I'll likely never get rid of the car as long as I have a house, but commuting with it is just not an option.

Since most people here are American, I figured I'd share my own story. I'm Australian and don't drive, except occasionally motorbikes in more liberal countries where a license is not required.

Having lived in a few places and now having a child, I can tell you that in my experience not having a car is a pain in the ass outside of major city centers in Australia, New Zealand and most of the US. However, it is super easy in China and Europe. In China you use taxis and long distance trains/places/buses. In Europe things are often walkable and there are great train systems and many airports.

To me it feels like the US, Australia and New Zealand bought too heavily in to the 1950s suburban dream and the car society around it, and now have a lot of catching up to do. Unfortunately, reclaiming streets from cars is difficult.

Wisdom from India: The Highway and Automobile culture are symbols of totalitarian cultures which deny people more sustainable and equitable alternatives for mobility and transport. - Vandana Shiva, February 19, 2004.

Another instance of "we out-capitalism'd you!" from China: China has the world's longest [high speed rail] network with over 16,000 km (9,900 mi) of track in service as of December 2014 which is more than the rest of the world's high speed rail tracks combined. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail_in_China

Those are bizarre definitions of "totalitarinism" and "capitalism".

It seems we have an ism-schism.

I use my car almost exclusively for long distance trips, so it stays parked near my home most of the time. But I still want it parked there, because I can decide at any time to make a trip and just go. Not worry about rental pickup/return times, reservations, mileage limits, etc. I was getting a new car last year and there was about a month after I sold my old one and before I got the new one. Almost immediately after selling the old car I felt like one of my freedoms was taken from me.

I have been thinking this will change as self driving cars becomes more prevalent. Commuting by car is very inefficient since all the time spent driving is wasted (compared to public transport were you can potentially work on the way to work, or cycling/walking were you get exercise). Self driving cars that are sufficiently good to handle the commute most days would change this and allow you to live further away from work in places that lack public transportation.

If you own a car today it spends most of it's life sat there waiting for you. Not so the self drive car which can be off doing errands - picking up those Amazon deliveries for instance - or working as a taxi for someone like Uber and making you some money by providing the individual, door to door, on demand public transport we want. This is gong to have a significant impact on how many of us own a vehicle I would imagine.

We still have geometric problems with everyone driving. Namely, cars take up space in two or three useful dimensions on roadways that are fixed in length, and have limited capacity to grow wider or higher. In short, self-driving cars won't handle peak demand and the accompanying congestion.

Where I am more excited about self driving cars is in their potential to change vehicle ownership economics in slightly denser areas. A car2go that delivers itself makes it pretty hard to justify buying an expensive capital asset that sits idle an average of 95% of the time. In other words, a rental service that is able to utilize its vehicle fleet more fully, should be able to make a handy profit while reducing travel costs for many people. The opportunity frontier is enormous here.

Once more people switch to user-fee based travel as opposed to all-you-can-eat-buffet travel, people all of a sudden start choosing how to travel rather than automatically hitting the default option. That opens the door to better public transit, which can handle peak demand, as well as more walking and bicycling.

And, we should have room for more and better bicycle/pedestrian facilities, since we won't need so much land to store all our mostly-unused boxes of steel and plastic.

I think self driving cars will be transformative for cities, but it won't be some Jetsons vision of the future where we simply upgrade suburbia with tech. That will probably happen too, but those changes will be rather less profound.

You can listen to audiobooks/news etc. while you drive. I do it all the time.

How does this theory affect the BRICS? (edit: The atlantic has an opinion here: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/10/the-rich...)

In Brasil, the nascent middle class consumes cares. It's a status symbol and a dream for many. It's a different culture. In the big cities (São Paulo, Rio, etc) the public transportation is miserable. Buses and Metro are overcrowded and Metro doesn't have a good penetration. So, no, in Brasil at least, no Peak-Car for quite some time.

Car production continues to climb. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Automotive_industry#World_motor...

There was a slowdown in 08, 09, and then back to growth. Internationally, it is expected to keep growing according to the auto manufacturers. Growing markets will account for a lot of that, for example in India auto ownership is at 1/10th the US and expected to continue to grow for a long time.

I think the peak is happening because it's a lot more expensive to own a car and people prefer to share or borrow one when they really need it.

For instance parking ticket has skyrocket by 300% this year in paris, fr ! You don't want to have a car parked there ...


With the advent of public transport, it looks like more people are moving to the city. This may also take into account people not needing to own cars, because of the ease of use of Lyft and Uber.

I hope this is true, but I suspect self-driving cars will cause an upward inflexion.

Who knows, they might enable much better service levels in public transit too.

Absolutely — let's hope so. (Of course, there are plenty of public transport systems that could run automated but don't owing to regulations or unionization -- a relative of mine used to work as a driver on BART, which essentially involved reading and occasionally pressing a "deadman" button.)

You can easily imagine the cost of taxi service going down to the marginal cost of fuel and vehicle wear-and-tear, which would be far cheaper than private ownership. But I suggest that will ALSO vastly increase passenger miles. (It might yet reduce the carbon footprint of car manufacture.)

The biggest cost for driving is time (gas, etc., a distant second). Efficient taxis will lead to less car pooling, more trips (because they will be less expensive in money and time -- you can watch TV, read, or chat with friends while driving).

It's hard to see how this can possibly reduce passenger miles.

Also imagine the increase in drug abuse! Now a pub crawl can continue while driving, and on the way home.

> vastly increase passenger miles

Ok, this might break the "peak car" but I'm fine with increasing passenger miles as long as passenger-CO2 and passenger-congestion go down. A self-driving minibus that you can call like a taxi but share with other passengers is my equivalent of the flying car :-)

> I'm fine with increasing passenger miles as long as passenger-CO2 and passenger-congestion go down

Yes but the idea that people will opt for a minibus over an individual taxi when the cost is trivial is optimistic. The marginal cost for a trip is gas + maintenance. The way to drive down emissions is to make people pay for them.

One of the "advantages" of driverless is that passengers will likely become less sensitive to congestion (because they're reading or sleeping). It's again hard to image much effort going into reducing congestion if people are less likely to notice it.

I don't see how this scenario reduces emissions or congestion.

This why some people are so optimistic about Uber, seeing a future where there would be instant aws style provisioning of transportation, you could see car ownership going the way of physical server ownership, in that case.

Taking it one step farther, you can see a melding of plugable container ship style passenger interiors which could be routed very efficiently like network packets, leading to tremendous efficiency which would make car driving/mass transit seem quaint.

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