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It is proof of what we have probably all seen with our own eyes: every tenth vehicle on the road is now a van.

The number of vans (light commercial vehicles or LCVs) on Britain’s roads has been rising more than 2.5 times quicker than cars.

Between 2002 and 2012, the number of vans increased by 29% to 3.3 million.

Over the same period the number of cars rose by 11% to 28.7 million. By comparison, over the same decade the number of lorries (heavy goods vehicles or HGVs) on British roads fell by 5% to 460,000.

The highest percentage change in van ownership over that period was seen in the North East, followed by the South West and Wales. This is the full table:

REGION Number of vans – 2002 Number of vans – 2012 % change 2012 on 2002
North East 77,300 141,000 82.5%
South West 270,100 391,100 44.8%
Wales 124,400 176,000 41.4%
Scotland 174,600 241,500 38.3%
South East 388,700 526,400 35.4%
Yorks & Humber 182,000 246,000 35.2%
East Midlands 220,600 278,000 26%
West Midlands 307,900 382,000 24.1%
East 274,000 330,300 20.6%
London 194,000 203,000 4.7%
North West 282,500 294,500 4.2%
GREAT BRITAIN 2,542,300 3,280,600 29%

The RAC Foundation commissioned a report from the consultancy company AECOM to try and better understand what has been happening with van traffic. It shows that:

  • Almost one in two (44%) of UK registered vans visit London each year
  • In Europe only France, Spain and Italy have more vans registered than Britain
  • 95% of vans are diesel powered
  • 20% of vans change hands each year
  • 3% of vans (112,000) are 20 or more years older
  • Van traffic in Britain is predicted to almost double by 2040, rising twice as fast as overall traffic.

What exactly is behind all this? We can of course speculate.

In 2013 three-quarters of British adults shopped online and we have the highest rate of internet shopping in the EU. Intuitively you would think this has resulted in a big rise in home deliveries and hence van use but more research is needed in this area.

There is also reason to believe hauliers are switching away from larger vehicles because of changing delivery patterns and growing environmental restrictions on HGVs. It could also be that more and more people are running their own businesses and need a van to carry their goods and tools.

With congestion set to grow understanding this key aspect of road transport is vital.

By Scott Le Vine

(Imperial College London and trustee of the shared-mobility NGO Carplus)

Unusual atmospheric conditions have led to major air quality problems in Paris, with particulate-matter readings so high that drastic measures have been taken to reduce road traffic.  Public transportation was free this past weekend (even bikesharing and the electric-carsharing system Autolib), and an odd/even licence-plate scheme was brought in to limit the number of cars and lorries (trucks) on the road.  Among other factors contributing to the crisis is the prevalence of diesel-powered cars in France, which are more damaging in terms of particulates than petrol (gasoline) engines.

The blog-o-sphere is alight with thoughts on how the crisis was handled (past tense – for now pollution readings are improving) but I have seen little about the role of smart technology in a 21st Century air quality transportation crisis.

In this short piece, I focus on the odd/even licence-plate ban in Central Paris – in principle this restricts the number of cars circulating on the streets by half.  The classical set of responses to such a classical type of transport policy (I and most readers were not born yet when the first odd/even ban was implemented) are well-established – a shift towards non-car forms of transport, some degree of non-compliance, if it drags on some people eventually buy second cars (typically older and more polluting) with the ‘right’ licence plate, etc.

But “classical responses” don’t necessarily hold in the Age Of The Smartphone – we constantly hear “there’s an app for that” – so what’s the app here?

Putting aside the issues of commercial-vehicle traffic, the most structural disruption is to the lifestyles of people that are the most car-dependent.  Some people drive despite there being pretty decent alternatives that can also provide access to the times/places that they go.  But other people drive because they believe they have little in the way of alternatives – they’re “car-dependent”, or at least that’s how they see themselves.  Of course others will retort that no one should be organizing their lives with such a heavy dependence on a single form of transport, but the reality is that they have done precisely this, they do it because it provides substantial benefits to them and their family, and they will not take kindly to being coerced out of their cars.  I’m not taking an ideological perspective here of whether this is good or bad – that’s a much broader discussion.  But it’s the reality.

Therefore I think it’s beyond debate that, when an odd/even licence plate ban is implemented, there’s great value (£££/$$$) to be unlocked by flexibly matching “car-dependent” drivers with other cars that have the “right” licence plate for any given day.

Time was that to deliver this service you’d have to own a fleet of cars, and you could then rent them out on an alternating-day basis to drivers in need.  If you do it right, and the ban persists, it might conceivably be a profitable business.

But that’s so 20th Century – today all that’s required to match drivers with cars is an app.  You’d need a virtual marketplace that matches between these groups on a short-term, flexible basis.  And you’d need an insurance product that lets person ‘A’ rent their car to person ‘B’ for a day without worrying whether they’d be liable in case person B damages it (or damages something or somebody else with it).  How much would “car-days” be transacted for?  That’s a matter for supply and demand to sort out.

Now that I’ve spelled it out, you’ve probably cottoned that this type of app-centric network already exists – we know it as peer-to-peer carsharing, and France is undisputedly one of the world leaders.

So those are my two cents on Paris’ air quality crisis – vive l’autopartage P2P.  Would this be a good thing?  That’s an interesting discussion, let’s pick it up in the comments section.  But if the authorities decide it’s not a good thing, what’s the recourse — ban P2P carsharing?  Have the NSA disable the app for the duration of the crisis?  Require that cars can only be driven by the registered owner – if so how would that possibly be enforced – not by police looking at licence plates on radial roads, as Paris did, that’s for sure.

Scott Le Vine, AICP is a research associate in transport systems at Imperial College London and a trustee of the shared-mobility NGO Carplus, which serves as the UK’s shared-mobility trade body. He authored the RAC Foundation’s 2012 study Car Rental 2.0: Car club [carsharing] innovations and why they matter.  This post is cross-posted at the www.racfoundation.org and www.planetizen.com.

Today the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders published the thirteenth edition of its new car CO2 report.

The Good News

Yet again the industry has made great progress in cutting CO2 emissions in all vehicle classes: average emissions are now at 128.3 g/km, already below the European target of 130 g/km by 2015.

On the face of it this is good news for the economy and drivers as it saves them money through lower fuel bills. It is also good for the environment and it means that government is actually on its way to meeting its climate change targets. In fact, passenger vehicle emissions reductions are making such great strides that they are outperforming the Committee on Climate Change’s trajectories and scenarios.

The Challenges

There are, however, a number of challenges which need to be overcome if we are to be truly on track to meeting our obligations. The first is that we are actually buying bigger and heavier cars (which is confirmed by the most recent European Environment Agency report on progress towards meeting the CO2 targets). While the share of mini and supermini cars is increasing, so is that of bigger and multi-purpose cars. The middle is being squeezed out.

We need to be careful that when we come out of the recession we don’t all just go back to buying big cars. Julia King in her seminal report on low-carbon cars said that if all of us bought best-in-class vehicles we could reduce emissions by 25% overnight. It is therefore encouraging to see that 3 out of the top 20 models are non-plug-in cars with emissions approaching the government’s definition of ultra-low-emission vehicles (75 g/km).

The second challenge is the discrepancy between ‘official’ and on-the-road emissions and fuel economy figures, which has actually been increasing over the years (International Council on Clean Transportation). This is particularly so for cars in the smaller and supposedly ‘greener’ segments. The problem is that this erodes consumer trust in vehicle manufactures and it also means that the government’s climate change ambitions are undermined because all the targets are based on ‘official’ data which underestimate the climate change impact.

We accept that any kind of test cycle on which the figures are based is ever only going to be exactly that, and that it must be repeatable and robust. But we can all agree that change needs to happen. The question is when: the latest proposals are to introduce the new test cycle and procedure (Worldwide harmonized Light-duty Test Procedure) by 2017 – we support this, but recognise that the adaptation of the 2020 target must be carefully thought through.

Lastly, there is the issue of air quality. The focus on climate change over the years has brought about a dieselisation of the vehicle fleet. While this is great for cutting CO2 emissions and fuel consumption, it has been bad news for air quality, particularly NOx emissions, which can cause or certainly exacerbate respiratory illnesses. It is very important that the UK and the industry get their act together in terms of air quality as the European Commission recently started official infringement proceedings against the UK for failing to meet the EU’s air quality targets.

The Solutions?

To overcome the above challenges, I would like to see the following changes:

  1. Stronger incentives for low-emission cars: Under the current Vehicle Excise Duty (‘car tax’) system, the incentive to go for the lowest CO2-emitting cars is weak. What we would like to see are more tiered/graded incentives – much like a ‘feebate’ scheme (low-emission cars receive rebates, high-emission cars pay fees) – which provide stronger incentives to buy best-in-class, and disincentives for the highest-emitting vehicles. The success of feebate schemes is evidenced by the French ‘bonus-malus’ system which was so successful that the government had to revise the system after the first year or two as it was losing money.
  2. Revision of the test cycle: We would like to see a revision of the current test cycle and procedure (New European Drive Cycle) to the new Worldwide harmonized Light-Duty Test Cycle and Procedure (WLTC/P). This will (hopefully) bring on-the-road emissions closer to test cycle results. We recognise that the 2020 CO2 target will have to be adapted so the goal post isn’t moved last minute for manufacturers.

  3. Accelerated turnover of the diesel fleet: The emphasis here is (or should be!) on ‘low-emission’ vehicles, not merely ‘low-carbon’ vehicles. We would like to see an accelerated turnover of older (Euro 2, 3 and 4) diesel vehicles as it is these that are responsible for much of the problem to do with air pollution. This could be achieved through a scrappage or loan scheme, which might be worth considering as part of the government’s proposals to invest a further £500 million into ultra-low emission vehicles.
  4. An ambitious but feasible new car CO2 target for 2025 (and beyond): This will provide certainty to industry,  save drivers money, reduce oil dependency, and make sure that Europe, and particularly the UK, remain the global leader in green vehicles which will attract investment and jobs. Our research, Powering Ahead, suggests that this should be of the order of 60 to 70 g/km.

We very much look forward to seeing the industry continue to make great progress in the coming years.

Much is being made by FairFuelUK (and others) of the link between lower fuel duty rates and boosts to the economy. Indeed FairFuelUK have commissioned their own research into the subject which they have put before ministers.

Of course ministers – particularly those at the Treasury – are already more than familiar with this link. It is a mantra that has been repeated several times by the HMRC in the Fuel Duty Rates briefing that gets published after each fiscal statement. This, for example, was taken from the note which followed the 2011 Budget when there was a cut to fuel duty:

“Fuel is a major business input for the UK economy. The reduction in duty will reduce costs for business; as such it is expected that this measure will have a positive impact on GDP.”

The sharp-eyed will spot something else the note says:

“As a result of this lower price, fuel consumption and the number of miles driven will increase and the incentive to improve fuel efficiency will be weaker.”

The last point of that sentence sounds worrying. But is it? For the consumer rising fuel costs will lead to less driving, smoother driving and, in time, a move to more fuel efficient cars. There is no denying there is a link between fuel prices and usage, though in the short term this is inelastic. However, doesn’t the drive to green the car fleet come more from legally binding carbon emission targets (backed up by a sliding scale of purchase taxes dependent on a vehicle’s carbon credentials) than pump prices?

The way the industry has reacted to the challenge of making cars less polluting is encouraging and there is every reason to think the vehicle fleet can be effectively cleaned up while still maintaining mobility. Manufacturers are well on the way to meeting the 2015 emissions target of 130gCO2/km for the average new car. Indeed several – including Audi, BMW, Toyota and Volvo – have met it already (the cynical might say the target was actually too easily achievable and should have been more challenging). This has been accompanied by a circa 30% improvement in fuel efficiency over the past decade. Looking further ahead, the target for 2020 is 95gCO2/km.

Keeping fuel affordable clearly risks adding to congestion and won’t assist the Chancellor as he attempts to balance the books as hydro-carbon tax income falls – road user charging anyone? – but as George Osborne’s own conclusions show, there are very good reasons for the economy in keeping the lid on the rate of fuel duty.

Dilemma of the day.

On the way to the station this morning I was caught in a traffic queue where normally there is no queue.

The cause of the holdup was a set of temporary traffic lights showing red.

They must have been red for some time as when I joined the queue there were already about 20 cars ahead of me on what is a quiet road.

Two or three minutes later and we were still going nowhere.

By the way the car nearest the lights kept inching forward I could see the driver was suffering both frustration and a dilemma:

“Should I ignore the lights and go through?”

His hesitation in making a decision was probably based on three things:

1)      Am I legally entitled to ignore the red light? After all it is only temporary, set up by workmen.

2)      Are the lights actually working or not?

3)      If I do go will I meet anyone coming the other way? The closed lane extended around a blind corner round which other cars intermittently materialised.

Eventually the driver of the lead car made his decision and set forth with the rest of us following. Luckily we didn’t meet anything coming the other way and as it turned out the lights ‘controlling’ traffic in the other direction were blank.

I couldn’t have helped on points 2 and 3, but on point 1 the Highway Code is clear that you have a legal obligation to obey temporary traffic lights. As the code says in section 109:

Traffic light signals and traffic signs. You MUST obey all traffic light signals (download ‘Light signals controlling traffic’ (PDF, 82KB)) and traffic signs giving orders, including temporary signals & signs (download ‘Traffic signs’ (PDF, 486KB).

A look at the road casualty figures show that traffic lights – or rather broken ones – can kill. In 2012, 39 people were died or were seriously injured in accidents where automatic signals were out or defective. Another 190 people were killed or seriously injured at roadwork sites.

Luckily, no such result this morning.

With the Transport Select Committee putting Network Rail in the firing line today over its attitude to deaths on level crossings, it is interesting – and sobering – to look at those statistics relating to fatalities amongst members of the public (excluding train passengers and workers) on the railways.

According to the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) Annual Safety Performance Report, in 2012/13 there were 49 fatalities (not counting a shockingly high number of suicides, 238 in all). Of these 49 victims, 39 were classed as trespassers, nine died at level crossings and one had been assaulted.

Looking specifically at accidents at level crossings – of which there are more than 6,000 on the mainline – of the nine people who died, four were pedestrians and five were road vehicle occupants.

The total number of collisions between trains and road vehicles was ten.

The last train passengers to die in level crossing accidents did so in 2004/5.

The report also puts into perspective the risk to people travelling by different modes, stating:

“On the basis of fatality risk per traveller km, rail travel is:

  • Around 1,600 times safer than travelling by motorcycle
  • Roughly 500 times safer than cycling or walking
  • Around 30 times safer that using a car
  • Similar to – but somewhat safer than – bus and coach travel”

Societal attitude to risk across different modes of transport was considered by the RAC Foundation in a 2009 report by Dr Chris Elliott called Transport Safety: is the law an ass?

Toll roads tend to have a bad name in Britain, thanks to the unregulated charges the operators of the M6 relief road are allowed to levy and the ever upward prices seen on the Dartford Crossing (leaving aside the presumption that the tolls would be abolished once the QEII Bridge had been paid for). Then there is the ‘Wales entry tax’ levied on those traveling from England over the Severn Crossing.

But there are other, less well known places, where tolls are charged,. These so-called local statutory tolled undertakings are, according to a new DfT consultation on how charges are decided, mostly run by private companies or individuals but on occasion are in the hands of local authorities:

1. Aldwark Bridge,  Nr Linton –On-Ouse, North Yorkshire

2. Bournemouth-Swanage Motor-Road Ferry,  Entrance of Poole Harbour , Dorset

3. Clifton Suspension Bridge, Leigh Woods, Bristol

4. Dartmouth-Kingswear Floating Bridge, Dartmouth, Devon

5. Dunham Bridge, Dunham-on-Trent, Lincolnshire

6. Rixton & Warburton Bridge, Warburton, Cheshire

7. Shrewsbury (Kingsland) Bridge, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

8. Swinford Bridge, Swinford, Oxfordshire

9. Tamar Bridge & Torpoint Ferry, Saltash, Cornwall

10. Whitchurch Bridge, Whitchurch-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

11. Whitney-on-Wye Bridge, Whitney-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Currently, operators have to apply to the Secretary of State every time they want to raise their charges. But the DfT argues that proposed increases in tolls which are no greater than inflation minus one per cent will be effectively rubber-stamped in a simplified process that reduces the significant costs for operators associated with applying for changes; costs which would be passed on to travellers.

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