blog | 10.10.2019 | David McArthur

Has the rise in smartphone use contributed to the phenomenon of ‘peak car’?

There is an ongoing discussion about whether developed countries such as the UK have seen ’peak car‘; the idea that the distance driven per person has reached its peak and is in the process of declining. In this blog, Dr David McArthur examines the potential influence of using the internet while travelling on Millennials’ plans for car ownership.

The reduction in vehicle traffic commonly known as the ‘peak car’ phenomenon seems in part due to young people (the Millennial generation) having significantly different travel patterns to previous generations. Declining car use is not confined to the UK, but has also been witnessed in France, the US and Germany.

There is no shortage of ideas about why we might be seeing these patterns. One school of thought says that Millennials are simply delaying car ownership and driving. This may be due to economic constraints faced by this generation (including the Great Recession) and/or delaying life events such as entering the labour market, getting married or having children. If this theory is correct, we should expect to see the Millennials drive more in future.

Another school of thought refutes these views and suggests that Millennials will always drive less than previous generations. They present evidence that driving was declining before the recession, and that even young people with a high income are more likely to use public transport and to travel less. There is also evidence that younger people have systematically different attitudes to previous generations; they are more likely to have positive attitudes toward active travel and public transport, live in urban areas, and use new technologies.

In a recent paper using the UBDC’s integrated Multimedia City Data (iMCD) collection, we contribute to the debate by looking at the role of technology. It has been suggested that the ability to do daily activities online can provide a substitute for travelling; people can make video calls, shop online and work from home. Growing Internet use should, therefore, lead to falling travel demand. However, another theory suggests that Internet access may act as a complement to travel demand, thereby leading to an increase. One way it might do this is by enabling easy journey planning with online maps and GPS tracking. Another way it might complement travel demand is by letting people make better use of travel time. Instead of being a cost, travel time is now time that can be used for leisure or work. This is particularly true for those using public transport or travelling as a passenger in a private car, where they are more likely to have the freedom to concentrate on their mobile device.

We address two specific questions in our paper:

  • Does using the Internet while travelling influence the number of trips made by both private cars and public transport?
  • Does it affect Millennials’ intention to purchase a car in the next five years?

Our results are not particularly encouraging for policy makers hoping that car use will reduce by itself. It seems that people who use the Internet while they travel tend to travel more, both by private car and public transport. This applies even when we account for the fact that people who travel more might be more likely to use the Internet than people that never use it. Our results also suggest that Millennials who don’t own a car are more likely to state an intention to buy one in the next five years if they use the Internet frequently while travelling.

While mobile technologies and the expansion of Internet access have had a transformative effect on many aspects of people’s daily lives, our research indicates that the rise in smartphones allowing people to access the Internet while they travel isn’t helping to reduce travel demand or car dependency.

David McArthur

Dr David McArthur is the Associate Director for Training and Capacity Building at UBDC and is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Studies at the University of Glasgow.

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