The Globe and Mail asks this intriguing question after reviewing driving patterns in Europe, Australia and the United States.

Experts say our love affair with the automobile is ending, and that could change much more than how we get around – it presents both an opportunity and an imperative to rethink how we build cities, how governments budget and even the contours of the political landscape.

It turns out that since the turn of the 21st century, people in the developed world appear to be driving less.  This is not the result of the financial crisis and corresponding recession and unemployment as the pattern started almost a decade earlier.

The most detailed picture of the trend comes from the United States, where the distance driven by Americans per capita each year flatlined at the turn of the century and has been dropping for six years. By last spring, Americans were driving the same distance as they had in 1998.

The data are similar in Europe, Australia and Japan…Australian researcher Jeff Kenworthy has found that driving in the nation’s five largest cities, combined, declined by 1.7 per cent per capita from 1995 to 2006.

Nor is it a by-product of the green movement.  The author thinks that it is simply a case that driving in cities has become so stressful, frustrating and annoying that people are finding ways to minimize their driving.  No doubt with the rise of the Internet workers are telecommuting more and some may be taking more and more sick days to avoid going to the office. In addition, the higher and higher price of gasoline (petrol) is forcing people to find ways to run their errands in a more efficient manner to maximize their disposable income, including shifting to on-line shopping where often there is free home delivery.

The increasing rise in those retiring in these countries is another major factor driving this trend.  Most people cut their vehicle usage by 50% once they are no longer working.

There is also a trend of moving back to the inner city by both suburbanites (including retiring baby boomers) and younger workers.  Here people are within walking distance of their work and other activities or only a short ride away using public transportation.

Adie Tomer, an infrastructure researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., was one of the first to spot the trend. “To me, it suggests we’ve started to hit this wall as far as how far and how much people are willing to drive,” he says.

No one is suggesting the car is about to disappear from North American roads – 85 per cent of us still either drive or carpool to work. But as suburbs spread out, commute times slow to a crawl and the cost of operating a vehicle climbs higher, even hard-core drivers are making what British Columbia transportation consultant Todd Litman calls a “rational choice” to find other alternatives.

Researchers are further finding that younger people are increasingly not bothering to learn to drive at all thereby reducing miles driven and the demand for new cars.

The implications of these changes for city planners are quite profound.  Instead of ever increasing sprawling suburbs and widening roads, some envison a re-think of how cities should be constructed for the future.

One conclusion from policy experts at the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth, Australia is that planners and developers will have to change their styles, becoming “much more adept at re-urbanizing suburbs and centres than in scattering suburbs around the urban fringe.”

In suburbs and cities alike, the demand will rise for density: “Peak car use will generate a growing rationale for removal of high-capacity roads and conversion of space to support transit, walking and cycling and the urbanism of the new city.”

Governments budgets are sure to be affected as less driving means less fuel taxes to fund road building and other infrastructure requirements. You can bet they will create innovative ways to get that money back from you.

 

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