Guest Post: Declining Va Va Voom

By Steve Gillies, Head of Agile Working, BT

Our  love affair with cars may be coming to an end. A number of statistics indicate that car use per person has reached saturation point and, in some areas, is on the decline. Professor Phil Goodwin of the University of the West of England calls this phenomenon “peak car”.

Goodwin is not alone in his belief. David Metz, former chief scientist at the Department for Transport, wrote a letter to Local Transport Today, saying we reached peak car “at least 15 years ago, when none of us noticed”.

At this stage, no one knows for sure why car use has peaked and even begun to decline in cities like London. (It was always assumed that more wealth equalled more car use.) Studies are underway to figure out what’s going on. In the mean time, we have to make do with guessing.

Transport experts say there is no single cause, but rather a multitude of causes all working in the right direction.

One thing we do know, from DVLA stats, is that fewer young people are applying for driving licences. Learning to drive used to be a rite of passage, but not anymore. Maybe it’s more important to own an iPhone than a jalopy. Or maybe the cost of driving lessons and car insurance has priced young people out of the market.

Other reasons people might be abandoning their cars are investments in public transport (especially in London and, nationally, in the rail network), free bus passes for the elderly, increasing petrol prices and the focus on healthier modes of transport –walking and cycling.

But let’s not forget that peak car coincided with the arrival of the internet and the knowledge economy. Tele-working, home shopping and the ability to meet and socialise online have probably all played parts in the decline in car mileage per person.

And Phil Goodwin has mentioned another way that ICT could be affecting car use.  “When people are plugged into their mobiles or their music, they’re creating a bit of private space around themselves, connected with their friends and family. It gives a form of privacy when travelling on public transport of a sort that you previously could only get when travelling by car.”

Given the important role of ICT in travel, Lynn Sloman, director of Transport for Quality of Life, wonders whether it’s time for the government to reassess its approach to transport. “Maybe the benefits of telecommunication could be much more closely integrated with the transport agenda,” Sloman says. “I think there’s a question about how we rethink transport and virtual travel and think about them as one thing because perhaps they are interchangeable.”

BTs smart working environment has resulted in a significant drop in employee travel with at least 20% of all face to face meetings being substituted by on-line alternatives. Always being on-line & potentially available for consultation has dramatically changed how knowledge flows, is generated and contributes to our business performance.

The future is networked, it belongs to employees who spend time developing their business social network making them and their colleagues dynamically teamed.

I love cars but have to accept they are increasingly less important to an on-line business and less attractive to new generations. It seems that va-va-voom is moving from auto-mobiles, chrome wheels and over-loud amplifiers to mobile computing, super-fast access and social networks.


  1. Comments 4

  2. John V 1:26 pm on June 22, 2011

    I think people have decided that driving is more of a chore these days. It is no longer as enjoyable to "take a ride" anymore since the roads are saturated and people drive very poorly making each trek out in a car less enjoyable. I used to just "cruise around" and listen to music. Not anymore. My commute to work was essential in the past and I used that time to think. Now I telecommute often. But today I feel it is much more enjoyable to ride a train or bus and either get some work done, listen to music, read or just sleep than to “waste” the 2 hours each day I commute just driving. We have such busy lives now that my commute time is valuable time to get back!!

  3. KevinMoss 1:41 pm on June 22, 2011

    John, thanks for these observations. I telecommute often too now and there are many advantages I would not give up. Your comment brings to mind though that, for me at least, the commute from office to home is an opportunity to decompress and transition between the two environments. When I telecommute I skip that decompression and have to be careful I don't walk downstairs to the dinner table and bring too much of my work with me - especially on a day where things perhaps didn't go as well at work as I would have liked !

  4. Steve Gillies 5:23 am on June 23, 2011

    John, I totally agree with your comments on public transport and how valuable our time has become. As a bit of a petrol head I really like driving but not in the rush hour. I'm lucky enough to live in the west coast of Scotland where there are still plenty of open country winding roads to enjoy of a weekend. I take a drive about 4 times a year around the islands and mountains. Great fun and most enjoyable. I do meet folks who feel that commuting allows them to wind up and down, providing a convenient transition zone between work and home. I'd rather just sit quietly for 10 minutes and use meditation to clear my mind. Steve

  5. John V 5:29 am on June 27, 2011

    Interesting that you both point out the "transition" time aspect. I absolutely NEEDED that time during my commute to listen to music and unwind a few years back. I have now adapted (after 1 too many episodes of bringing a bad day to the dinner table as you point out Kevin) by doing what Steve mentioned. I now spend a few minutes reflecting on the day and then a few minutes thinking about my family and then I am ready to “make the break” and head to dinner with my family. I too am a petrol head (we are called gear heads here in the US) and still love driving. But the commute was never really fun and is even less enjoyable now.

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