• Augmenter la taille
  • Taille par défaut
  • Diminuer la taille

A brief history of mobility

Gregory Launay, translation by Audrey Brousseau - Last update: April 25th,  2012


People mobility has dramatically increased in the 20th century, more than ever before.

Global evolution of people mobility and car usage – Ref: Francis Papon, 2003

On a global scale, the distance covered by one individual in one day has soared from 5 km in the early 20th century to 18 km today. The democratization of the automobile is highly accountable for this result (here is the global motor vehicle fleet). Then, 45% of daily distance is covered today by car. That represents nearly 8 km per day per person.

This boom goes along with a huge demographical change as the world population has skyrocketed.

Global population growth - Ref: INED, synthesis from the author

In the early 19th, the world population reached the first billion. In the last 200 years this figures has soared to 7 billions! And it seems that it is not over yet. Considering population and mobility evolutions, we cover now 30 times more distances than 200 years ago.

Global mobility evolution in the world since 1800 – Ref: Francis Papon 2003, synthesis from the author


Details of this evolution

Transportation has changed in two stages. The first one occurred in the 19th century with massive railways development thanks to steam engines and coil exploitation.

Evolution of trips by mode in Great Britain from 1750 to 1900 – Ref: Fouguet & Pearson, 2003

Then, in the 20th century, the development of the internal combustion engine and that of oil exploitation triggered a huge and rapid expansion of automotive usage. This was the second step of this revolution.

Evolution of trips by mode in Great Britain from 1850 to 2000 – Ref: Fouguet & Pearson, 2003

Considering those facts, energy is obviously one of the main elements allowing this evolution. Before the first industrial revolution, renewable energy was mainly used for transportation: wind for mill and boat, forage for animals, etc.

Technologies based on fossil resources made it possible to extend transportation by making then faster and cheaper, and thus easy to use and affordable to most people.

It’s a fact that transportation time has remained stable (about an hour per day, this is what’s called Zahavi’s speculation). Consequently, the main factor of the evolution of transportation was the increase of average speed. We do not take longer or more frequent trips, but we go faster and farther.

Different countries, different situations

This development happened with many fluctuations depending on the level of domestic wealth and the access to energy resources. The vehicles equipment rate for some countries gives a good outline of these disparities.

Evolution of automotive equipment rate contingent on Gross Domestic Product per capita – Ref: Booz & Company analysis

The equipment rate contingent on gross domestic product draws an “S” curve. We can assume that “developing countries” will join the group of developed countries in a few years, represented on top right of this graph!

In addition to GDP criteria, other elements, such as population density, may have an impact on the equipment rate. The difference between the USA and Japan is a good illustration of this phenomenon.


The situation in the United States: an example to follow?

The daily distance covered by one single American has soared from 4 km in 1880 to nearly 80 km in the early 1990s. This multiplication by 20 corresponds to GDP growth on the same period (about 2 and 3% annual growth).

As mentioned in Zahavi’s speculation, that did not lead to any increase of transportation time. This was possible by increasing average transportation speed, replacing slow modes, such as walking, by faster ones, such as railways.

Distances covered in the United States (kms per person and per day) – Ref: European Review, Vol. 6, N. 2, pp.137-156.

We can observe that the distances covered by car and by foot were the same in 1917-18. In France, this situation was only reached in 1950. Estimations made for France give a similar evolution but with twice as short distances. French would travel 2 or 3 km per day in 1880 and about 40 km since 1990.

The link with automotive industry

The world automotive industry has developed in this context with annual volumes that have increased regularly up to 70 million vehicles within the year 2008 (before the crisis) and again in 2011.

World automotive production, 1898-2007 – Ref: Freyssenet 2008 through WMVD, SMMT, JAMA, IRF, CCFA, OICA plus complement to the author from 2008-2011

Some remarks on this last graph:

  • As any other manufactured products, the car production dropped in the hardest periods of our history: the 1929 crisis, the two world wars, the oil crisis.
  • This production has soared during the “trente glorieures” (4 times increase in 30 years), this correspond to the first equipment time of western countries
  • Since the beginning of 2000, a rapid growth has been observed, that corresponds to the first equipment of new giant countries called BRIC for Brazil, Russia, India, China and also Iran, Argentine, Turkey, South Africa, Mexico, etc.

Today, with a global fleet of 1 billion vehicles, the equipment rate is about 150 vehicles for 1000 inhabitants … only.

Evolution of world equipment rate – Ref: CCFA, author synthesis

Today, the United States equipment rate is closed to 800 vehicles for 1000 people. Imagine that all the countries will reach the same level means more than 5 billions vehicles on earth, probably 7 considering also the population growth.


What about the future?

Ecological issues seem to be more and more concrete and urgent to tackle, mostly resources depletion and global warming. Many people yearn for (and foretell) the death of automotive industry.

Some others assert that technical solutions are real (manufacturers of course, but not only). The 2008 economic crisis has convinced industrials to really develop alternative technologies: bio-fuels, hybrid vehicles, electric vehicles, fuel cells …. A technological future is taking shape!

Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Is there a defendable direction that would enable global mobility to keep on developing in compliance with the various environmental constraints? This simple question is the main topic of this web site… Enjoy the visit!