There is increasing evidence that vehicle travel in developed countries may have peaked, contradicting many historical travel demand forecasts. The underlying causes of this peaking are still under debate and there has been a mobilization of research, largely focused at national scales, to study the explanatory drivers. There is, however, a dearth of research focused at the metropolitan scale where transportation policy and planning are frequently decided.
Using Los Angeles County, California, as a case study, we investigate the Peak Car theory and whether social, economic, and technical factors, including roadways that have become saturated at times, may be contributing to changes in travel behavior. After peaking in 2002, vehicle travel in Los Angeles County declined by 3.4 billion (or 4.1%) by 2010. The effects of changing fuel prices, fuel economy, population growth, increased utilization of alternate transportation modes, changes in driver demographics, income, and freight are first assessed. It is possible, and likely, that these factors alone explain the reduction in travel. However, the growth in congestion raises questions of how a constricting supply of roadway network capacity may contribute to travel behavior changes.
There have been no studies that have directly assessed how the maturing supply of infrastructure coupled with increasing demand affect travel behavior. We explore regional and urban factors in Los Angeles to provide insight into the drivers of Peak Car at city scales where the majority of travel occurs. The results show that a majority of the decline in VMT in Los Angeles can be attributed the rising fuel prices during the 2000s. While overall roadway network capacity is not yet a limiting factor for vehicle travel there is some evidence that suggests that congestion along certain corridors may be shifting some automobile travel to alternatives. The results also suggest that the relative impact of any factor on travel demand is likely to vary from one locale to another and Peak Car analysis across large geographic areas obscures the nuisances of travel behavior at a local scale.