It seems to be out of fashion (not to mention politically difficult) for governments to consider trying to influence the rate of change of vehicle ownership (or ‘motorisation’ in transport studies jargon).
India's recent draft national urban transport policy (go here for pdf) explicitly rejects slowing down ownership growth but suggests that urban areas contain vehicle use. Shanghai's efforts to contain car ownership through its licence plate auction are disapproved of by China's national government. Even Singapore now wants to 'strike a better balance between the ownership and usage costs of a car' (see Budget 2002). (BTW I have a relevant paper: go here for the journal page or here for a pdf.)
There seems to be a widespread consensus that transport demand management should focus on vehicle usage not ownership. There are various good reasons for this.
However, there are also some arguments in favour of influencing ownership (especially slowing its growth).
- the practical difficulties of usage pricing in the context of low and middle-income countries
- by contrast, taxes and charges on vehicle ownership are common and feasible for most countries
- there are some valid budgetary and luxury tax arguments suggesting purchase or ownership taxes can be welfare enhancing
- household travel behaviour seems to change drastically with the purchase of a vehicle, with the ease of movement inducing extra travel
- and this effect seems difficult to reverse ... there seems to be 'hysteresis' with cars being seen as a luxury before they are bought but as a necessity after they are owned! (see Dargay, J.M. (2001) ‘The effect of income of car ownership: evidence of asymmetry’, Transportation Research A, 35, pp. 807-21).
- The sunk costs of vehicle ownership also contribute probably. A household has a considerable incentive to make good use of such a significant piece of capital equipment that is depreciating whether it is used or not.
- at the whole-metropolitan area level we can also see difficult to reverse changes:
- once motorisation reaches highish levels a series of system-wide changes seem to start to happen in the transport system and the land-use system that may tend to 'lock in' continued high levels of car use (many call this the emergence of 'automobile dependence' or 'automobile dependency').
- conversely, slowing down the rate of motorisation might buy time in which cities can enhance their ability to cope and enhance the various alternatives to private motor vehicles (Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo and others seem to have benefited from this effect, even if it was not always deliberate, and have been able to retain high levels of public transport use despite high levels of affluence).
- Finally, in the big picture it seems clear that motor vehicle use, fossil fuel use in transport, and other impacts of traffic such as road deaths, are all highly correllated with vehicle ownership. At the national scale, differences in usage per vehicle are relatively small (although in cities such differences can be larger apparently).
Certainly the politics are curly. I wonder if the way forward is to look for the aspirations that lie behind the desire for car ownership?
People certainly do want transport to serve them very well... including many or all of the benefits that a private vehicle offers. But is it a car that most people really want? Or is it the convenient access to the contacts, goods, services and places that high mobility with your own car seems to offer?
Obviously none of the alternatives can match the attractions of cars on their own - even in the most transit-oriented places I suspect. Not public transport. Not even a wonderful metro system. Not bicycles. Not taxis. Not car sharing even.
But there are some signs that maybe a package of all of these alternatives, working in cooperation, MIGHT just start to offer people a level of mobility service that approaches car ownership's and which beats it on price decisively. Switzerland's car sharing industry has been leading the way on this. HannoverMobile in Germany seems to be taking it further - offering a mobility package that is competitive with car ownership.
If we can offer a vision of meeting people's real mobility aspirations without private car ownership then could a policy of slowing vehicle ownership actually become politically acceptable?