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Should we (can we?) make our cars dispensible?

It's interesting to see the ideal of universal car ownership gradually eroding.

Don't believe me? There have been several books in recent years along the lines of "Divorce your car!" and "How to live well without a car". The rise of car-sharing has prompted some to see it as a potential alternative to car ownership. The car-free housing movement seems to be gathering pace and entering the mainstream of real estate development in certain places. Meanwhile, Shoupista parking policy reformists are increasingly questioning parking entitlements, including (gasp!) residential parking entitlements. Even William Ford Jr. of Ford Motor Company seems willing to contemplate a future in which cars provide a service rather than being primarily a product.

So more and more people seem to be asking the question, 'are our cars dispensable' or 'could we make our cars more dispensable?' But maybe a more positive way to ask the same question is, 'can we make our relationships with cars more "provisional"?'

I've been thinking hard about these (and related) issues for a couple of years now, and one of the results is a draft paper which I presented at the TDM2008 symposium in July. The draft paper is here. And the poster presentation is here.

Here is the abstract, which should give you the flavor of my arguments:

The way cars are possessed has not had the close attention it deserves. The primary way of gaining access to cars has been assumed to be via owning one. Possession has thus been taken for granted, preventing us from seeing it as possibly problematic.

However, the link between car use and car possession is eroding, in both practice and in theory. High mobility had been widely assumed to require a car but it has recently become possible to envisage excellent mobility through an integrated package of services and modes, including convenient access to cars, without needing to possess one. This reveals possession (and its sharp contrast with being car-free) as a source of ‘rigidities’ that inhibit active choice making in travel.

Previous work is drawn upon in order to explain the main sources of these possession-related rigidities, which are grouped into two categories: reversible effects (‘stickiness’) and difficult-to-reverse effects (‘invasiveness’).

The paper thus builds a case for seeing car possession, the way it works, and its contrast with non-possession, as problematic for travel markets and for TDM policy. Possession-related effects are shown to be more wide-ranging and interesting than is generally appreciated.

Cars themselves are not seen as the problem so much as the ways in which we possess them. This focus on possession-related rigidities opens a possible policy agenda, focused on reducing such rigidities (or, equivalently, making our relationships with cars more ‘provisional’).

There has been a widespread taboo against devoting policy attention to car ownership but the policy possibilities here address both sides of the car possession divide and go well beyond merely constraining possession.

This diagram (from the TDM2008 poster) illustrates possible policy implications of the arguments in the paper (these need work).

If this has whet your appetite on this topic, a number of my previous blog posts relate to these issues and also link to other people who are thinking along these lines:
Furthermore, a number of elements of what Eric Britton calls the 'New Mobility Agenda' resonate with these arguments.


  1. Thanks a lot for the article Paul, it is really informative. I still have a doubt how to convince people in the developing cities where they consider car as a symbol of prestige.

    From my view I think the need for alternative modes for the same destination should be provided and as you state, the quality of these alternative has to be better than those for the car users.

    you comments are valuable as usual

  2. Prestige in owning a vehicle (or a certain kind of vehicle) is a big issue everywhere, I agree.

    But notice that in the right context, at least some rich people (eg in inner Zurich or central Paris or Hong Kong or Manhattan) sometimes decide that the pretigious (or at least the smart) thing is not to have a car with all its inner-urban hassles. Instead many rent one when they want one.

    So I think there is hope of creating conditions in which large numbers of people treat cars as a service rather than as a product. But I am not saying it will be easy!


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