A Decline in Car Use in Britain: The Result of Policy and Practicality

"New Urbanism," a movement that encourages the creation and restoration of compact, walkable, mixed-use cities, is in part responsible for Britain's decline in car use. Photo by Laura Ward.

Britain has been experiencing a decline in car use, reports the U.K.’s Independent. Between 2004 and 2008, British cities saw a nine percent decline in car trips per person and a 5 percent decline in traveled car distance.

Phil Goodwin, a professor of transport policy at the University of West of England, attributes the decline to the new generation of drivers, or better yet, the lack thereof. According to Goodwin, fewer young people are learning to drive. In fact, between 1992 and 2007, the number of 17- to 20-year-olds who obtained a driving license fell 10 percent; the age group of 21- to 29-year-olds saw a nine percent decline.

Transport experts credit several possible factors for deterring young people from taking up driving, most popularly cost. Soaring gas prices with the combined effect of insurance and maintenance costs have more and more younger people choosing alternative modes of transport.

“There is an inverse correlation between petrol prices and traffic – when petrol prices go up, traffic levels go down,” the report explains. “But petrol will have to get a lot more expensive before people abandon their cars in significant numbers.”

The price of gasoline and the cost of maintaining a car aside, London’s newly implemented congestion charge and controlled parking zones make it expensive to commute via car. Moreover, strong investments in public transport are improving mass transit’s standing as a viable commute option.

Goodwin’s theory, called “peak car,” projects that the car use phenomenon has seen its peak and is now on a decline with the help of multiple factors—social trends, transport policies and technologies—that have a cumulative effect on individual behavior.

“Today, many people who have an office job work from home at least one day a week. If everyone works at home one day in five, that’s a 20 per cent reduction in traffic,” the article reports.

“Only, it’s not that straightforward. As Goodwin points out, commuting journeys are a good way of preventing cars from being used during working hours. When a car is at home, it’s available for other members of the household to use. While the net effect is still positive, it isn’t big enough to explain peak car. Internet shopping has also made a small dent but, again, not a big enough dent to explain the numbers.”

David Metz, visiting professor at the centre for transport studies at University College London and a former chief scientist at the Department for Transport, offers another possible rationalization for the decline: “new urbanism,” a movement promoting the creation and restoration of diverse, walkable, compact, vibrant, mixed-use communities.

Up until 20 years ago London’s population had declined by people moving out to the country, Metz explains. However, that trend reversed and in the past 20 years, population density increased in London’s inner cities, which made way for public transport, and a walking- and cycling-friendly commute culture. As London’s population density went up, the number of car trips per day stayed steady, which means that car journeys per person declined. “This reached its peak in the early 1990s, has been declining ever since and it is projected to go on declining as the population keeps growing,” Metz says.

Leeds and Manchester are experiencing a similar trend in urbanization, the article reports. According to the Independent, after having experienced inner-city decline, which led to lower rental properties, these towns saw an influx of artists and entrepreneurs, perhaps of an age group not reliant on private vehicles.

However, abandoning private vehicles is not unique to a younger age group.The elderly in London have an equally enticing reason to abandon private vehicles, the Independent explains. The elderly are given free bus passes to ease their commute.

“There has tended to be an assumption on the part of policymakers that it’s just not possible to change people’s travel behavior to less carbon-intensive means of travel but, actually, if people are changing their travel behavior already, perhaps we can support that kind of change in behavior by going with the grain of what people want to do.” says Lynn Sloman, director of Transport for Quality of Life. “If the future is going to be on a different trajectory to the path predicted by the Department for Transport, then that has a very big impact on what types of infrastructure are invested in.”



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