The automobile—once both a badge of success and the most convenient conveyance between points A and B—is falling out of favor in cities around the world as ride-hailing and other new transportation options proliferate and concerns over gridlock and pollution spark a reevaluation of privately owned wheels. Auto sales in the U.S., after four record or near-record years, are declining this year, and analysts say they may never again reach those heights. Worldwide, residents are migrating to megacities—expected to be home to two-thirds of the global population by midcentury—where an automobile can be an expensive inconvenience. Young people continue to turn away from cars, with only 26 percent of U.S. 16-year-olds earning a driver’s license in 2017, a rite of passage that almost half that cohort would have obtained just 36 years ago, according to Sivak Applied Research. Likewise, the annual number of 17-year-olds taking driving tests in the U.K. has fallen 28 percent in the past decade.
Meanwhile, mobility services are multiplying rapidly, with everything from electric scooters to robo-taxis trying to establish a foothold in the market. Increasingly, major urban centers such as London, Madrid, and Mexico City are restricting cars’ access. Such constraints, plus the expansion of the sharing economy and the advent of the autonomous age, have made automakers nervous. That’s also pushed global policymakers to consider the possibility that the world is approaching “peak car”—a tipping point when the killer transportation app of the 20th century finally begins a steady decline, transforming the way we move.
Rather than signaling the end of the road for the automobile, peak car is a reflection that reurbanization and the widespread adoption of mobile apps that can summon a vehicle on demand will lessen the need for many of the 1.3 billion vehicles now on the road. And with new cars increasingly expensive, but mostly used just a few hours a day, the financial case for alternatives is growing stronger. “When you put all these trends together, you’re going to see a cap on personal vehicle ownership start to emerge,” says Mike Ramsey, an automotive consultant with researcher Gartner Inc. “We are near peak car.”
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