The habits of a car reliant nation20 Apr 2009

Forget about buses and trains. The car is the real form of public transport in this country.

Britain is a car reliant nation, where vehicle ownership has gone through the roof and car usage is now completely engrained in our lives according to a new Royal Automobile Club Foundation report ‘The Car in British Society’ published today (20th April 2009) and produced on behalf of the Foundation by a team of leading transport academics*.

In the last decade the number of cars has jumped by 30% – up from 22.7 million to 29.6 million. Yet over the same time the population grew by only some 4% to 60.6 million.

The report finds that for 80% of the population, living in a house with a car is the norm – with the biggest recent growth in ownership seen amongst the poor and older people.

But whilst car use has grown for nearly half a century, this trend appears to have halted in recent years with usage per person stabilising, indicating that on average cars are being used less intensively. The reasons for this are not clear, but the report indicates it may be due to the changing nature of the car driving population or because traffic congestion has deterred some people from using their cars.

Today the RAC Foundation cautions Government that even if this trend of less intensive car use continues, with such a large number of people relying on the car ministers must take account of the potential social and economic consequences of trying to reduce car use to tackle climate change and congestion.

The Foundation director Stephen Glaister says, “The British are not addicted to driving, but they are car reliant. More than four out of five people say they would find it difficult to use their cars less. It is a myth to claim public transport is the magic answer. The Government’s emphasis on High Speed Rail ignores the reality of most people’s lives.”

He continues, “Car use is the norm. Historically people had everything they needed – work, shops, family, friends and schools – literally across the road, certainly within walking distance. Today this is rarely so. Forced to travel ever further, people have taken advantage of cars to improve their quality of life. Who can blame them? The challenge lies in preserving mobility whilst tackling congestion and climate change.”

“The car is here to stay. It is the bedrock of our society and our economy. It has democratised this country. There is no question of getting rid of cars. Instead we must change the type of cars we use – smaller, lighter, more fuel efficient models with less cradle to grave CO2 emissions.”

Lead researcher Dr Karen Lucas, from the University of Oxford, said: “Our research suggests that most people can not envisage a future without their cars and many would go to considerable lengths to continue using their cars. The current policy debates about reducing car use, through road pricing and personal car allowances, do not fully consider the impacts that this might have on people’s lives, especially for those on low incomes or with limited options for alternative modes of travel. We hope this study will go some way towards encouraging a more realistic and robust analysis of the economic and social implications of such policy decisions.”

Despite the huge growth in vehicle numbers, around half of all drivers do less than 5,000 miles annually showing car ownership does not necessarily equal high levels of car use.

Ahead of the budget the Foundation asks the Chancellor to recognise how crucial the car is to all sectors of society, and remember how much is already spent on motoring. At 14% of household income it is one of the biggest expenses most people face.

Stephen Glaister cautions against any blanket attempt to force people off the roads which will hit the poor most and lead to social exclusion and decreased mobility at a time when for most other modes of travel are limited.

“Given so many people, often from low-income households, do few miles by car and generate low levels of CO2, the Chancellor should shift emphasis away from taxing people on what they own, to what they use. This is likely to be through national road pricing. The trade off for drivers would be the abolition of road tax and fuel duty, and more spending on the road network.”

Amongst the key findings of the report are:

  • 70% of adults now have licences.
  • Of the poorest 20% of households nearly half own at least one car.
  • Two thirds of trips (mechanised and on foot) are by car.
  • Yet almost half of drivers (46%) do less than 5,000 miles per year.
  • Over the past decade and a half car ownership amongst lower income families and the elderly has risen inexorably.
  • Women are increasingly using cars.
  • Car use accounts for 8% of all trips under half a mile in length, 78% of all trips of 2-3 miles, and 80% of all trips of five miles and over.

Then comes the issue of people’s willingness and ability to use alternative methods of transportation.

  • 45% of people say they are willing and able to reduce their car use, but generally people prefer using the car to public transport.
  • So-called ‘soft’ transport policy (including measures like tele-working and car-club/car sharing schemes) trialled in three areas of England has resulted in an average reduction of car use by 12%, not enough to have a sufficient effect on overall CO2 emissions.
  • There is likely to be a big increase in social-exclusion if people – especially those from low-income households – are forced off the road by a one-size fits all, ‘hard’ approach to reducing car usage.
  • Government research has already shown a lack of transport is a significant factor in the exclusion of many low-income groups and communities.

Click here to access the report and associated documents.

A hard copy of the report is available from the Royal Automobile Club Foundation on request