Reigning supreme for over half a century
Owning a car has always been synonymous with independence and closely tied to the development of the middle class in countries around the world. Since the 1950s, the car has charmed us as a symbol of power and freedom. And nothing has challenged its supremacy – not even the various economic crises, which only slowed its inevitable rise.
Today, the sheer number of cars on the road is dizzying – over 1.25 billion globally – but the unquestioning adulation of the automobile seems to have waned. We no longer talk about empowerment, but dependency. What once was liberation is now more about restrictions. And the ideal of adventures across vast open spaces has given way to news stories of choking urban pollution. In short, the language of the 2000s and today reflects a reality as grey as exhaust smoke.
The automotive sector is showing signs of weakening. After a decade of record sales, the number of new cars being registered has fallen for the second year running. In 2019, overall sales are expected to drop by 4.5% in all three main markets: China (–9% in 2019), the United States (–2.5%) and the European Union (–3%).
Cars are a vital form of transport in rural and suburban areas, but cities are increasingly keen to restrict or ban them. The traditional social model is also changing, especially among younger people, who typically prefer ‘using rather than owning’ commodities, cars included. The proportion of young Americans with driving licences stood at 92% in 1984. Today, it has plunged to 78%.
More than anything else, what’s pushing the private car towards the exit door is a combination of environmental imperatives and public health issues. The internal combustion engine is solely responsible for almost one-quarter of global CO2 emissions. The World Health Organisation estimates that 90% of the population is now breathing pol- luted air – believed to be the cause of over 7 million early deaths a year. Like the roads, our lungs are choking!
Cleaner ways of powering vehicles
Vehicle manufacturers are adapting to society’s expectations and environmental concerns by developing more efficient and viable solutions. One report predicts that hybrid and electric powertrain technologies will co-exist alongside each other in a fairly even split by 2040.
But for now, uptake remains slow. While global sales of electric vehicles, for example, were up 68% in 2018 and 30% in 2019, they still account for less than 3% of total sales. And while the car-buying public seem ready to make the jump, 35% say purchase price is still a barrier, with 24% also citing the lack of range. On the subject of self-driving cars, they’ll almost certainly be a success in the longer term, but there are still some significant technological and ethical issues to be addressed.
Roundtrip carsharing: residential service with allocated parking space/charging point for each vehicle.
Free floating: carsharing with no allocated parking space. Rental for short distances and durations.
A new transport of public transport?
Beyond the technological advances making cars cleaner and safer, willingness to change our driving habits is a key factor in solving the mobility challenge.
To limit single occupancy car use, public transport authorities and operators have introduced a host of solutions for integrating cars into their shared mobility ecosystems. Carpooling and car-sharing services and on-demand services using shared vehicles are already proving viable around the world, especially for filling the first and last-mile gap in public transit systems. One American study estimates that if all motorists agreed to make shared vehicle trips, the number of vehicles on the road could be reduced by almost a third.
MaaS (Mobility as a Service) would boost efficiency by providing “unprecedented opportunities for integrated ticketing, real-time information and more,” according to a report by the Centre on Regulation in Europe (Cerre) in September 2019.
But limiting the number of vehicles isn’t the same as effectively deterring private car use. Convincing motorists to forego the comfort of their private vehicles requires further efforts. The same report states that the full development of MaaS and shared mobility will only become a reality and prompt a modal shift if “the rules for using the roads are oriented towards strong incentives for ride sharing” coupled with “real disincentives for the use of individual cars”, says Xavier Corouge, Managing Director of Europcar Mobility Group’s Urban Mobility Business Unit. In other words, we need to regulate. “Public transport authorities are uniquely qualified to promote the clear vision of mobility needed across an entire region so that cars can be integrated into a new mobility ecosystem,” adds Xavier Corouge. “They’re also best placed to coordinate everyone involved in managing the operational issues”.
Several major cities are already making the transition. Taking an incentive-based approach, the Montreal and Ottawa transport authorities have opened up bus and taxi lanes to carpoolers with at least three people aboard. Another solution is urban road tolls, or congestion charging – as in Singapore , London and soon New York . Oslo has taken an even tougher approach, banning cars from the city centre and removing parking spaces. In the Belgian and Slovenian capitals, the authorities have closed many of the main roads to motorised vehicles.
But none of these measures on its own is enough. They need to be part of a holistic approach to shared mobility, with a combination of suitably adapted municipal infrastructure, incentives for eco-friendly forms of mobility, introduction of restricted zones and development of high-performance digital platforms to promote MaaS as an efficient and sustainable mobility ecosystem.
Pending Elon Musk’s dream of underground tunnels carrying passengers in autonomous, ecologically friendly vehicles, we must start thinking about cars differently and change people’s behaviours through a combination of incentives and regulation.