Few things astound me more than the fact that there are approximately 1.4bn cars in the world. That’s 1.4bn 1.5-ton machines made of metal, plastic, rubber, 99% of which are still fuelled by petrol or diesel. With approximately 5 seats per car there is enough capacity to carry around 7.5bn people. The global human population is 7.9bn. Theoretically we’d only need another 80 million cars to take every human on earth on a road trip at the same time, this is less than the number of cars made each year pre-pandemic (97 million in 2020). Unsurprisingly, access to this abundance of cars is skewed towards wealthier countries, such as the UK where there is 1 car for every 2 people.
The car was invented during the second industrial revolution (along with the emergence of electricity, gas, oil and mass production). We have now surpassed the third industrial revolution (the rise of the computer and automated production) and are into the fourth industrial revolution (where the internet rules all and AI emerges). As someone who has lived through the end of the third and the start of the fourth revolution, I often wonder what sort of industrial revolution it will take to change the way we own and use cars. Are we about to find out within the Green Industrial Revolution? The climate crisis we face is surely a wake-up call and an opportunity to reshape the way cars serve us, beyond simply swapping them for electric models 200 years late.
The foreword of the Transport Decarbonisation Plan states that it’s “not about stopping people doing things: it’s about doing the same things differently… We will still drive on improved roads, but increasingly in zero emission cars”. However, with evolving lifestyles post-Covid and the urgency and pressure of decarbonisation, will people continue to do and want the same things?
The pandemic has done a great job revealing for many of us that a privately owned car is not needed for survival anymore, and in fact perhaps we can thrive in many ways without them. This is particularly true for those of us living in multifunctional towns and cities. It is also true of any of us willing and able to embrace living in this fourth industrial revolution. If many of us can now digitally access our survival needs (i.e., food deliveries, work, constant socialising), surely the car is no longer a required mode for survival?
Of course, everyone has varying transport needs. I have found user segmentation useful in understanding an array of different reasons people may own a car. This can range from the challenge of getting to work on time (i.e., for shift work), those living in areas of transport poverty with little other option, to those who run their kids around to various activities.
As a white woman in a white-collar job who has a driving license, I am aware that making the choice to go car-free in many ways highlights my privilege. Whilst there are 32 million cars in the UK, approximately 19% of people have no existing access to a car or a van. On closer inspection this seems to be an indication of a system that incites inequality and primarily benefits white people who are “consistently more likely to live in a household with access to a car or van than any other ethnic group”. Only half of the UK population can drive in the first place – consider others who are shut out from the party as they are too young, disabled or no longer able to drive. For those who are car-free without choice in a society that is designed around having access to a car, the concept of thriving may seem unrealistic.
My vision for the UK in 2050 is for car ownership and its exclusiveness to be a thing of the past. Could this lead to more equitable access to mobility? If more people who have the privilege to be free from owning a car did so, might this begin to level the playing field? In which case, how can we encourage more people to consider this as an option? Many people will argue that the services and infrastructure people need to have reliable alternatives to a private car need to be in place first. I don’t disagree with this logic, but as the odds are currently stacked so high in favour of the car, I don’t think this is a helpful starting point…
Figure 1: Where we are vs where we could plan to get to
What could a public-led movement to stimulate behaviour and demand change lead to? In 1944 six pioneers met and actively founded a new modern movement, Veganism, despite living in a predominantly meat-eating society. In the beginning, becoming a vegan must have been incredibly challenging in a world of meat eaters. It has taken time to work its way into the mainstream. But now being a vegan in the UK is becoming increasingly popular – with options in shops and restaurants continually emerging to support this growing market.
The challenge set by veganism has inspired me, like so many others, to drastically reduce my meat intake. I dream of a similar movement that inspires people to consider the implications of car ownership and encourages people to go car-free (Car-Freeganism if you like!). I am excited by the prospect of what could be on offer if more people demanded alternatives to owning a car, including more affordable options for accessing a shared car when one is required.
Of course, going full on free from car ownership won’t be a possible option for everyone now. But what if we started planning transport systems to enable future generations to live life free from car ownership as a default? This is very much a world I would like to wake up and see in 2050.
About the Author
This post was written by Anna Rothnie. Anna is a Greener Transport Council Member