DfT’s anti peak-car rhetoric: narrative analysis of DfT statements

We have to come off the car for many reasons. It’s a perfect situation for politics to act and direct society. For politics can be described as

[a]ny desired source that is not totally abundant – be it money, social prestige, recognition, research grants, or whatever – must be divided up through a political process with some people getting more and other getting less of whatever is designed (Smith et al, 2008:412)

Yet automated forces, well-trodden paths and a well-rehearsed rhetoric keep our government’s car kinship in its place. There seems little reflection of natural limits (fuel) and systemic boundaries (space, health). One such force acting against automobility is the theory of Peak Car. It is the prediction that car use has peaked and is now falling – even without much government intervention I may add. Peak Car would demand that for these reasons the paradigms should be shifted too: the public-pursing Treasury should follow suit, budgets redirected and spent on better types of future transports.

Peak Car however is a dangerous concept to a reluctant power structure. Peak Car is eating away on the notion that somehow “everyone drives” – which appears to be a very common belief amongst decision takers (and amongst the wider population too). This is of course not true at all. That urban areas, and especially the younger generations, have been ambiguous towards car ownership and use for quite a while. But these trends have not entered power’s consciousness. There is still talk about full motorisation and mileage saturation with little discussion of where the space and the health budget would come from to facilitate such an endless system. As even with smoother traffic (perhaps promised by driverless cars) and clean air (promised by e-cars), space and inactivity would remain big costly problems for society. I suspect this inability to politically manage and direct resources (rather than promise ever more for everybody) has led to yet another blind belief, the belief in technological solutions – and the spearhead is the car which must be protected at all costs.

In the following I have a look at statements from the DfT in relation to Peak Car. What do they say? How do they position Peak Car? What’s the DfT’s sentiment towards Peak Car?

NTS report

In its NTS report England 2015, DfT states

Peak car is a term used by some to describe the hypothesis that car driver mileage per person has reached a peak, and will now begin to fall.

Immediately Peak Car is positioned as a term “used by some” hence limiting its strength and putting Peak Car in its place. This is followed by the technical description of Peak Car.

DfT follows on to say:

The NTS figures relate to personal travel at the individual level. Overall volume of traffic is also influenced by population growth and commercial travel. Therefore despite the declining individual car driver mileage, which has led to a debate about whether car use has peaked, DfT traffic statistics show that total traffic levels for all motor vehicles have increased in recent years, and in 2015 reached a new peak level of 316.7 billion vehicle miles travelled

Here DfT continues to speak against Peak Car and dismiss it as a prediction. The reason given is that overall driven miles are still increasing as opposed to individual mileage, which is decreasing. Population growth and commercial travel are put up as givens. I find this paragraph astonishing for two reasons. Firstly its content suggests that the DfT are not looking at managing car use (just like they are blindsiding this problematic when it comes to their NTM which is a showcase for limitless management, refer to DfT’s Road Traffic Forecasts 2015, page 42 figure 3.6 and my related post Cracks in a paradigm). Secondly, this smells awfully like something that’s called Predict & Provide. DfT wants something then it simply fulfils it. It budgets and engineers its way towards making it happen, then celebrates its success. The DfT have come under fire and are heavily criticised for this self-fulfilling pathway they are taking. Relevant professions have started to vent their dismay, recent example CIHT Futures report – listen to podcast, go to 12:10 specifically.

Further, DfT asserts:

The NTS provides a rich source of data to explore trends in car use (and other modes). For example, it is a key source in the Department’s analysis ‘Understanding the drivers of road travel’, which explores a range of potential factors to explain the trends in car use. The NTS was also used in the recent ‘Road Use Statistics’ report.

DfT explains to us how good the NTS dataset is by listing other reports which have used it.  I look at the report ‘Understanding the drivers of road travel’ below. It is rather telling that “and other modes” is put in brackets.

The DfT continues

Overall, the Department’s work concludes there is little evidence to confirm that car ownership levels or distance travelled per person have reached saturation. As shown by NTS data, car ownership has continued to rise outside London during the last decade (although at a slower rate than preceeding [sic] decades). In recent years, aggregate car traffic levels have resumed growth, as shown by DfT traffic statistics.

Again this paragraph smells of a pure Predict & Provide approach. No sign of management, re-direction or notion of car ownership and car use being damaging, more than they are supporting, our future. No hint at patterns changing. No trends, no longitudinal outlook provided. No mention of alternatives that would be more space efficient or healthier. It’s all about the car and keeping the current paradigmatic system going.

DfT text goes on:

However, there are different patterns for different groups, which are explored in more detail in the following chapters. For example, there are different patterns by age and gender, with a greater decline for younger males, but some groups such as older women continuing to increase car use. As noted, patterns also differ by type of area, most notably within and outside London. The NTS provides a useful source to continue to monitor trends in driving behaviour at the individual level.

At last here are critical acknowledgments. However – or is it just me – they seemed to be brushed aside rather abruptly to only be submerged in more motor rhetoric again.

DfT report ‘Understanding the drivers of road travel’

In the perhaps aptly car-centrically named Understanding the drivers of road travel: current trends in and factors behind car use in the foreword we can read:

There have been big changes in how we use our roads over time, and will be further changes in the future. The aggregate figures are striking – after decades of strong growth the total distance travelled has plateaued in the last decade. This report looks in some detail at the composition of the changes and their drivers, including income, costs, and socio-economic changes.

We conclude that growth will resume – income, driving costs, and the location of where people live and work are major determinants of the volume of road travel, and these are expected to drive up car use over time. We will publish updated road transport forecasts soon.

I sense very little interest in transitioning away from car use. “We conclude that growth with resume” makes it clear that there is little or no interest by DfT to think for the future, but rather they keep living in a glorious motoring past. Peak Car is only listed in the appendix of the document, but not openly discussed in its body text. In other words, a theory critical of the DfT approach has been silenced.

Overall I can only agree with this statement from House still being very relevant:

The politics of more for everyone was [and still is] more acceptable than the politics of distribution (House, 2008:631)

Naturally it’s a rather lazy way to run a presiding body of power. Yet it seems to describe what’s happening at the DfT. That government department is not keen to acknowledge limits and system boundaries. Only then would we be able to steer safely away from the harmful Predict & Provide (for the car) and see that Peak Car is a real possibility, a reality even. That’d be the moment we stop rearranging chairs on a sinking ocean liner, take the helm in an attempt to miss the iceberg. Mass motorisation with all its harmful side effects is only as real as we design for it. And I ask myself in conclusion, when will government learn to govern again?

In my view, DfT are well aware of the situation, and they are nervous. This government department desperately keeps seeking to resurrect automobility to make their predicting for it come true. It’s like saying “it’s true because it must be true!” As automobility is DfT’s mainstay, to keep the paradigm alive they must cling to it. However times are changing, albeit without DfT moving with the new reality or being able to embrace it. They fathered an idea in the 1950s which is long dead and they anxiously keep rocking it.



House, E. R. (2008). Qualitative evaluation and changing social policy. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials (3rd edition): Sage Publications.

Smith, J. K., & Hodkinson, P. (2008). Relativism, criteria, and politics. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials (3rd edition): Sage Publications.


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