circular economy transport

The structural waste of cars

I’ve written a number of times about the perversity of private cars as a dominant transport system. The new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation makes the case more succinctly than I’ve done so far:

The European car is parked 92 percent of the time—often on valuable inner-city land. When the car is used, only 1.5 of its 5 seats are occupied. The deadweight ratio often reaches 12:1. Less than 20 percent of the total petroleum energy is translated into kinetic energy, and only 1/13 of that energy is used to transport people. As much as 50 percent of inner-city land is devoted to mobility (roads and parking spaces). But, even at rush hour, cars cover only 10 percent of the average European road. Yet, congestion cost approaches 2 percent of GDP in cities like Stuttgart and Paris.

The report refers to this as ‘structural waste’, and suggests there are similar dynamics at work in food, construction, and energy. That represents a huge economic loss, but it is waste that can be eliminated as we move towards a circular economy.



  1. Consenous drawn on City or large conurbation however with people living as I do 2.2miles away from the nearest bus stop and over 4 miles from the centre of nearest town a car is a must. Further I have a wife who is now finding it difficult to walk very far, again a car is must. Nevertheless as the report indicates our milage per annum for example is half what it used to be, as much against the volume of traffic as well as fuel costs. So our vehicle rests a long time in the garage. However with a population above 70 million and rising, surely the number of private cars is just going to climb?

    1. The key is appropriate technology – ie a transport technology suited to the context. In rural areas cars are going to still be the best solution, but not in cities.

      Yes, if things continue as they are the number of cars will climb, but that shouldn’t be inevitable. All the necessary technologies exist already to get urban transport on a more sustainable footing.

  2. While using assets more efficiently both lowers costs and broadens access this kind of assessment is quite silly. What seems like ‘Structural waste’ is often more efficient than alternatives.

    So that while most cars only spend 8% of their time on the road, solutions such replacing them with a smaller fleet of taxis so that they are being driven all the time would actually have more waste in delays in people’s journeys and the cost (direct and opportunity) in having so many people working as taxis drivers that the structural waste work be greater. (Autonomous cars would change this but we aren’t there yet).

    1. You’ve only looked at one alternative. My street is full of cars, and they’re never all used at once. Many of the journeys made by car are also made by half-empty, overpriced, buses. The answers aren’t easy, but that doesn’t mean there is no improvement to be made.

      1. But the problem with this kind of number crunching report is that it gives the impression that if only smart people looked at this a solution would present itself. Hayek’s knowledge problem doesn’t figure in their reasoning.

        1. Obviously nobody’s interested in a less efficient alternative, but you’d struggle to find anything as remotely wasteful as private cars and the infrastructure they require.

          It being a market economy, people will decide for themselves what they’re prepared to pay for, and there are plenty of examples of popular alternatives to private cars. (London’s buses and cycling routes, Manchester’s trams, etc)

          I haven’t thought about it, but out of curiosity – don’t services like Uber more or less eliminate the problem of dispersed knowledge?

  3. I’m not remotely surprised that Stuttgart wasted 2% of GDP on cars: it is packed into a valley and can’t take the number of vehicles trying to get in.

    It ihas been observed many times that traffic volumes go up and down depending on the amount of space given over to cars. If you reduce the space for cars in a city, then people use alternative forms of transport, and if you make a new wide, fast road, you get more and more cars on it until it is filled to the 10% limit. It is a phenomenon observed over and over again.

    Secondly, whenever you make it easier to use cars in an urban area, by definition you make it harder to use any other form or transport. You also make it less pleasant to live there. In the same way, if Stuttgart would get serious about reducing the numner of cars and engineered their roads accordingly, they’d reduce the amount of traffic pouring into the city, have lots of space to fit in cycle ways, bus ways and footpaths. and the city would be more pleasant to live in and to go to. For less money….

    Alas with two major luxury car companies on the edge of the city (both swallowing subsidies as if their corporate life depended on it) this is only happening very slowly, with much screaming for every positive step made.

    The solution for urban areas isn’t complex and expensive autonomous cars: it is keeping cars out of the city and replacing them with much more pleasant walkable, cyclable and public transport based mobility solutions…

    1. Absolutely, and the meeting of motoring lobby power and populist policymaking is a story repeated up and down the country in Britain too. I expect more of it from the chancellor in his budget on wednesday.

      But as you say, we know what to do. All the technologies exist, and there are more than enough case studies of cities and towns that have got it right.

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