Friday 3 May 2019

Why Car Ownership Is Becoming a Thing of the Past

For decades, car ownership has been an aspiration and something to enjoy, as well as a tool. Recent trends suggest this may no longer be the case for many.

As the roads of the horse-drawn carriages of the Victorian elite have now become filled with the chauffeured Rolls-Royces of today's upper class, how you travel has remained a matter of social status. Having your own personal car has long been an aspiration, a sign of social achievement: as Margaret Thatcher once said, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself a failure." This quote exemplifies the attitude of the majority, that led to the boom of car ownership in the latter decades of the 20th century.

Times have changed, though. Brits today use cars for 14% fewer trips per year than they did in 2002, travelling 10% fewer miles. While in the 1990s, 80% of 30 year olds were driving, today 80% is only reached by the age of 45. Growth in car ownership has slowed substantially, and as a result many believe that we have reached 'peak car'- and should only expect car ownership to be in decline in the near future.

Some clear trends have emerged in the 21st century that provide some reasoning for why car ownership seems set to become a thing of the past. Environmental awareness is a massive change; car drivers were happy to purchase ice cap melting gas guzzlers in the 20th century, and, to be honest, many people still are (see the wealth of unnecessarily large diesel 4x4s that patrol the streets of London), but there has been a clear shift of consumer demand away from fossil fuels. This has given rise to the phenomenon of hybrid cars, that can operate for periods without burning petrol, and is currently driving appeal of fully electric vehicles (EVs). EVs are not quite there yet- thanks to low supply and the relatively new technology, prices of electric cars remain a barrier for most, as does the young network of infrastructure to support them.

In the meantime, the fossil fuelled cars available currently are unacceptable in their environmental impact- hence why they choose to seek alternatives to car ownership, whether it be public transport, cycling or walking.

Better public transport, has also helped reduce the need to own a car. For citizens of large cities like London, public transport has come on leaps and bounds in the past decades, with metro networks like the London Underground, trams and buses becoming a part of many people's daily commutes. However, the benefit of public transport has been unevenly spread, and focused heavily in metropolitan Britain- rural access to buses has become notoriously poor, given a lack of investment, and consequently car ownership in rural Britain remains higher than in urban areas.

A simple truth is that many people simply can't afford to purchase a car. Car prices aren't just rising- but running costs too, particularly fuel, tax and insurance. Even storing your car has become harder: Properties with car parking command a premium, car parking charges are exorbitant in most places and employers are increasingly keen for their staff to find other ways to get to work (for example, Vodafone provides free of charge employee bus services to its Newbury HQ). While driving remains for many a cheaper, more reliable alternative than the train, efforts are being made to shift from personal to group transport, where emissions per traveler are substantially lower.

The youth have been instrumental to all of the above. A new generation has grown up without the innate urge to whizz around at the helm of a car they could call their own, that was so appealing to previous generations. The youth are actively aware of the climate issues the world faces, and how cars contribute to this. They are happy to commute via public transport, cycle or just walk. And today, young people are those particularly feeling the economic pinch, with disposable incomes stagnant and car insurance for young people at an all time high.

Many carmakers see a future in which customers pay
for the service of car usage, rather than a specific car-
a 'Netflix for Cars'
The phenomenon of car leasing has existed for a long time, and continues to grow, but the wealth of technology at our fingertips means that we have no shortage of ways to flexibly use cars without owning them. Turo is a service that claims to be an 'Airbnb for your car', where people cant rent cars put up on offer by owners. Companies like Zipcar own cars dotted around major cities, which users can pay to use by the hour, being able to unlock the car via their smartphone. These systems are already in place and mean that anyone needing access to a car can find one pretty quickly and easily, and they don't need to worry about insurance, road tax and so on- just pay as much as you use it.

This is just the start: car manufacturers like Tesla and Mercedes-Benz are planning to make their cars open to anyone who needs to use them. The majority of time that you own a car, it will be still- parked up at home or at work. With self-driving technology on the horizon, these firms envisage a future where your car drives you to work, before driving off during the day to act as a 'robot taxi', earning you money, before coming to pick you up at the end of the day. Or, you may come to work in one car, which someone else then takes to use, and you grab another car to go home- meaning you don't own one specific car. Rather, you have access to a wide network of cars.

Ownership in general seems to be a concept that is fading away. Home ownership has been in decline in many countries, as people seek to rent. We now subscribe to 'on demand' services like Netflix rather than buy and store our own movies. So perhaps it makes sense that cars should follow suit.

It's a shame for car enthusiasts, certainly. The days of a car being a 'pride and joy' on your driveway appear to be numbered, as self-driving cars also look set to enter the mainstream in the coming decades. But undoubtedly, for those who see a car more as a tool to get from A to B, which most people do, the future promises a more flexible and perhaps affordable prospect for car usage.

Lone Editor