Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Decline and Fall of the Car?

Interesting piece in the Indy, in which in true journalistic fashion gives a snappy name, 'Peak Car',  to a sociological phenomenon, being the decline in car use in London.

The 'experts' finger increased costs, more parking restrictions and more working-from-home via the interweb as being on the crime scene at the time, but the reality is no-one really knows for sure - it's likely a complex combination of factors.

At Cycalogical we have our own thesis. People have started to figure out that owning a car in London is generally a pretty crap experience. It's a world away from the car adverts, where you bowl along on deserted roads in the beautiful Scottish countryside with the wind in your hair and not a care in the world. In London, you crawl along on congested, potholed roads festooned with signs telling you what you can't do, worrying about traffic wardens and the cost of petrol. Cars are no longer a romantic fantasy or an aspirational dream; they are a prosaic, humdrum reality and people are starting to regard them as simply a transport mode, which of course is the advertiser's nightmare.

Cars are no longer the aspirational objects they once were. Going back to the sixties (which Philip Hammond would love to do), keeping up with the Joneses required you to own a car. Fast-forward a decade or so, car ownership had become ubiquitous, so people aspired to own smarter, 'executive' brands such as BMWs. Today, a BMW is just another car, as commonplace as a Ford. It's about as aspirational as instant mashed potato.

Non-car-ownership has become a more realistic option in the eyes of the ordinary public. Having a car that doesn't get used more than once a week is a little pointless, and a lot of expense and hassle. You can get your supermarket to deliver your shopping, so that's one more car journey that you don't need to make. Joining a car club gives access to a car without the commitment of ownership.

What about young people? Fewer youngsters are learning to drive. Over the 15 years to 2007, the number of 17- to 20-year-olds who held licences fell from 48 per cent to 38 per cent, and for 21- to 29-year-olds, the number fell from 75 per cent to 66 per cent. The cost of insurance for a young driver makes car ownership an expensive proposition. Leaving university with huge debts and coming into a world where buying a flat requires a large deposit means young Londoners have little cash to spare. The fact that driving is becoming something that only older people do is another problem for advertisers who want sell sex rather than transport.

Britain used to be in love with the car. As with any love affair, once the spark of desire has gone, you start to see the former object of your affection with all its faults. You fall out over money matters and finally figure out you might be happier on your own.

Put simply, people used to want cars. Now, an increasing number of people are finding they don't want them, they don't need them and they can't afford them. Someone should tell TfL and the DoT, where it's still the 1960s...

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