Is private car ownership becoming a thing of the past?

The idea of owning a car is changing for economic and environmental reasons writes Sean Murray
Is private car ownership becoming a thing of the past?

An environmentally-aware cohort of younger adults may turn towards different models of travel in future, with or without the car.

As restrictions eased in recent months, all signs pointed towards Ireland’s continued reliance on the car but experts say that the trend towards mass car ownership may be bucked as younger people choose alternatives to the costly asset.

An environmentally-aware cohort of younger adults may turn towards different models of travel in future, with or without the car, experts say.

And any step change in this regard would be a far cry from what has preceded it.

Growing up in Ireland in the '80s, the '90s, and well into the 2000s, getting a car was a rite of passage.

You’d do your theory test, learn to drive in your mother’s Golf — and heaven forbid, you should ever bring it home with a scratch — pick up a battered old Focus that was on the limits that you could afford.

And then you’d make sure you passed your driving test (however many tries it took).

It was then a well-worn path to the slightly less battered car and then the family saloon and so on.

It was one of those things that showed you were now an adult; you had the car.

For generations previously, that may not have been the case. And for the generations to come, it remains to be seen if the car will dominate as it has until now.

Car ownership exploded in Ireland from the mid-1980s onwards. From 1985 to 2020, the number of privately-owned vehicles on the roads rose by 215%. There were an extra 1.5m cars, alone, on the roads in this time.

The rise in car ownership in Ireland coincided significantly with the rise of the Celtic Tiger. Between 1995 and 2008, the number of private motor vehicles licensed here doubled to 1.92 million.

There were a number of reasons for this, according to experts.

 From 1985 to 2020, the number of privately-owned vehicles on the roads rose by 215%. There were an extra 1.5m cars, alone, on the roads in this time. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
From 1985 to 2020, the number of privately-owned vehicles on the roads rose by 215%. There were an extra 1.5m cars, alone, on the roads in this time. Picture: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

Dr Mike Hynes, an environmental sociology lecturer at NUI Galway, told the Irish Examiner that the car was placed “atop the hierarchy” when it came to transport infrastructure from the '90s onwards.

“Essentially what we did was mirror the policy of the UK in the 1970s,” he said. “What they did was sat someone down, and asked how many more cars will we have in 20 years’ time in order to provide that road space.

“That goes into a spiral, as if you go into that paradigm it’s a never-ending cycle of car dependency. The idea of automobility becomes institutionalised in Ireland.” 

The number of new car registrations peaked in 2007, with 186,00 new passenger cars registered according to the Society of the Irish Motor Industry. These numbers dipped significantly during the recession before rising again in recent years.

Up to October of this year, over 100,000 new passenger car registrations were made in Ireland; this was an increase of 16,442 on 2020, or 18.94%.

When compared to many of our European counterparts, Ireland actually has lower rates when it comes to private car ownership. 

According to Eurostat, Ireland has 454 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants. This compares to 482 in France, 519 in Spain, 574 in Germany, and 663 in Italy.

We can also see that, as we exited the series of lockdowns, traffic began to return to more normal levels.

Car traffic volumes in many areas are now at 90% of the traffic levels seen in late-2019.

At the same time, however, the total number of rail and bus journeys is now 59% of those taken in early March 2020. So while car traffic levels are almost returning to what they were before, the number of rail and bus journeys is not close to that yet.

Dr Mike Hynes said that the typical rights of passage for previous generations of getting the theory test, getting your licence, and buying a car isn’t quite the same today.
Dr Mike Hynes said that the typical rights of passage for previous generations of getting the theory test, getting your licence, and buying a car isn’t quite the same today.

Dr Brian Caulfield, associate professor and head of discipline at the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering at Trinity College Dublin, told the Irish Examiner that this wasn’t a surprise.

“Public transport has been slower to bounce back, but that could be partly because so many people are still working from home," Dr Caulfied said.

“The overreliance on the car is clear. The CSO said that 75% of all trips in the country were made by car [pre-Covid]. It’s the way the country has been developed over the past number of years. 

"With one-off housing in areas, for example, in large parts it means the best way to get there is by car.”

Younger outlook 

While reliance on the car remains high in Ireland, there is something of a generational shift in terms of younger people’s approach to car use, according to experts.

Dr Hynes said that the typical rights of passage for previous generations of getting the theory test, getting your licence, and buying a car isn’t quite the same today.

“For my two sons, the last thing on their mind is such a large purchase as a car,” he said. “Outside of a mortgage, it’s probably the most expensive thing anyone can buy.”

He said that there may be a number of factors contributing to younger people not buying cars in the same way as before. 

This could include awareness of the environmental impact as well as the high cost of essentials such as housing.

Dr Hynes said: “I think a newer generation are looking at a car as something that’s a bit of an excess, most cars are lying idle for 90% of the time.”

It’s not a very practical device to have in that context.

Dr Caulfield that the car is not necessarily seen as a necessity in the way it may have been before for some.

“It can be a very wasteful asset,” he said. “People don’t automatically see it the way they would’ve done before.” 

Getting a car on the road these days, particularly for first-time drivers, is not a cheap endeavour. Insurance costs, alone, mean that young people can fork our four-figure sums before getting on the road. 

Anecdotal evidence points to people in their late teens and early 20s being quoted as high as €2,000 to 3,000 for their first year of driving.

Motor tax, NCT, and the one-off cost of buying a car mean that it’s a large outlay for any person.

But that’s not to say that younger people aren’t still buying cars.

Chris Lawlor, who runs the Lawlor Motors car dealership in Park West, told the Irish Examiner that he sold a large proportion of cars to first-time drivers in the past year.

“I have found a lot of younger people, and first-time drivers, still coming in, especially during the times of Covid,” he said.

“Anyone that was on the fence about driving who’d maybe saved up a bit made the call and bit the bullet during that period to come to buy their first car.”

‘Inequitable’ public transport 

But, for younger people to be able to shift away from buying a car, they still need an efficient means of getting from place to place.

And it is the lack of equitable public transport across the island that has reinforced the need for the car in many areas.

Dr Caulfield said: “Public transport needs a firm base of users to be successful. There’s some part of the country where the distances are so big, it’s looking at how feasible it is ever going to be.” 

He cited the plan recently launched by the National Transport Authority called Connecting Ireland.

The National Transport Authority (NTA) launched its five-year Connecting Ireland plan last month which aims to increase public transport connectivity in rural areas. Above are Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan TD and NTA CEO Anne Graham at the launch. Picture: Julien Behal
The National Transport Authority (NTA) launched its five-year Connecting Ireland plan last month which aims to increase public transport connectivity in rural areas. Above are Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan TD and NTA CEO Anne Graham at the launch. Picture: Julien Behal

It proposes boosting access to public transport for people in rural areas from 53% to 70%, and to provide more frequent services for rural villages along with 60 new connections to regional cities from surrounding areas.

“That could go some way towards delivering the alternatives,” he said.

Dr Hynes said the distribution of public transport as it exists now is “inequitable” and needs serious work if it is to address the reliance on cars, particularly in rural areas.

“That rural-urban divide in regards to public transport is something that has to be bridged,” he said. “Ideas around liveability and quality of life — it improves greatly when you have the choice of transport.” 

“Public transport needs to be as good as the car, if not better,” Dr Caulfield added. 

“To get that is difficult. If your local butchers is 5km away, you want the bus there now. Getting that frequency is going to be very difficult. That’s why the car will win. And always win.” 

Options for the future 

CSO figures released this week tell us that electric or plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are growing in popularity.

In the first 10 months of this year, such vehicles constituted 15.7% of all new cars licensed for the first time; this compared to 7.4% in 2020.

And, while just 4% of homes have an electric car, some 24% of people said they’d go electric when they were changing their car next.

Mr Lawlor, who sells secondhand cars, said there wasn’t much of a market in this area as of yet but he planned to up his supply in the coming years.

“There aren't really enough new electric cars being sold at the moment to create a market for secondhand ones,” he said. 

“And they are very expensive at the minute, with too few charging points around in many areas.

"Even if there were twice the number of charging points, I still don’t think it would be enough to cater for the traffic volume on the roads.

“My plan next year is to have 20% of my stock allocated to electric vehicles, provided they are affordable to buy.  

"It’s inevitable people will be changing the way they think about driving, but that’s still about three or four years before it happens on a wider basis in my opinion.” 

Although emissions would be reduced with more electric cars on the roads it may not alleviate congestion.
Although emissions would be reduced with more electric cars on the roads it may not alleviate congestion.

While Dr Hynes said that the emissions reduction from electric cars would be welcome, it may not alleviate other problems caused by having so many cars on the roads.

“I probably am in the minority here, but I do tell my students to look at the congestion on the roads. If they had a magic wand and waved it to make them all electric vehicles, have you got rid of the dominance of the car in an urban area?”

Dr Caulfield, meanwhile, said that the future is indeed pointing towards electric cars, there was also the possibility that ideas around having to own a car could shift.

He said: “If you look at younger people. They don’t own DVDs or videos anymore, they stream them. Same with music. They don’t want to be tied down. 

"They no longer want the asset and the costs that go with it.”

In terms of a car, they could go towards a pay-for-use model of car ownership.

He said that could involve temporary renting, car-pooling and car-sharing models that could become a popular and sustainable practice into the future.

“The transition is coming,” he added. “Electric car sales are only going one way. But in future, owning a car may not be as easy as it’s always been as the kind of instant mobility culture may have to be curtailed a bit. 

"We could have other options there heading forward.”

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