By Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation.
You’ve heard of peak oil, of course, but what about peak car? The theory that here in Britain travel by automobile has plateaued; indeed is starting to decline. It is an idea that is gaining traction in many corners of academia and Whitehall, and confirmation of its existence would have important repercussions, certainly as far as transport policy is concerned.
On the face of it there is a lot to suggest the idea has merit, not least the levelling off of total car traffic which began in the early 2000s and which became a decline as the recession hit.
But what is going on beneath this bald overall figure? What happens when you start to disaggregate the total? Thus far no one had really done the work to reveal the true picture hiding under the surface. They have now. A team led by Professor Peter Jones from University College London – sponsored by the RAC Foundation, the Office of Rail Regulation (for the researchers also looked at rail travel), the Independent Transport Commission and Transport Scotland – has spent months pouring over official transport facts and figures going back a decade and a half. And the conclusion of their On the Move report is? Essentially that the nation’s love affair with the car is not over yet. Indeed millions more driving virgins have been charmed by its wiles over recent years.
As you might imagine the reality is a complex one. Since the mid 1990s there has been a huge drop in company car mileage as the tax regime surrounding these vehicles and the fuel they use has changed. Men of most ages are also driving less with a big decline in licence holding amongst young men aged 20-29. London has also seen a significant fall in per person mileage.
Yet that is only part of the story. Around 2.5 million more women have a driving licence today than fifteen or so years ago. This figure is not simply a product of population growth, but an increase in the proportion of females driving.
And those females who do drive are also doing more miles on a person basis than ever before (though they still drive only half as much as men).
In fact if you take out the collapse in company car use – which could be viewed as a one-off factor which has now pretty much worked its way through the figures – then for those aged 30 and over outside the Capital then car use has been growing, not falling. This group of people represents 70% of the British population. For them there has been no ‘peak car’ effect.
Women in their 30s are also leading the charge in growth on the railways, increasing their mileage by around 80%, compared with national growth of 54%.
Cause and effect are difficult to determine but there seems little doubt that increased female travel is linked to women’s increasing level of economic activity (as men’s declines), the rising age at which they have children, more middle-aged people living alone and increased longevity.
There is also the regional dimension. On the Move demonstrates that London really is a world unto itself. It had the unique distinction of being the only part of Britain where – prior to the recession – there was a decline in traffic.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious: the congestion charge, excellent public transport, emphasis on walking and cycling. But also playing a part are international migrants and the very large young population, two demographic groups who drive less than the average.
Perhaps the biggest unknown going forward is: what will happen to those young men who are not currently driving? Will they decide they can forever go without a car or once their financial and domestic circumstances change will they revert to type and become drivers? A lot hangs on their choices, but not all transport policy is dictated by relatively small changes in individual choice. Some of it is down to sheer weight of numbers. And with the official forecasts predicting a ten million rise in the population in the next couple of decades, it would take a brave person to suggest we should be cutting investment in our road network.
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