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Roads to Nowhere

Peak car or bleak car? The future is up for grabs

Sian Berry's picture

3 December 2012: A major report today shows some of the factors behind patterns of car use, and how policies can change future trends.

RAC report 'On the Move' coverAlong with a growing group of academics and transport planners, we’ve been questioning the validity of current Government transport and traffic forecasts for some time. This chart produced by Professor Phil Goodwin from the University of the West of England illustrates best how forecasts from the past 22 years have failed to predict the actual number of miles driven in cars by people in England. And the inaccuracy has always been one way – massively overestimating the amount of driving people will do.

The concept of 'Peak Car' responds to the fact that developed countries around the world are seeing car traffic level off rather than increase in line with forecasts like this, and that in dense urban areas traffic levels are declining. The hypothesis is that this effect is cultural rather than simply economic, led by new trends such as fewer young people desiring cars of their own, and the growth of home offices, online shopping and radical changes in communication technology making face to face meetings and transactions less necessary, to the extent that they affect travel patterns in a significant way.

The years since 2008 have seen car traffic across the UK actually decline by around 2.5%, raising even more questions about forecasting, such as how and whether traffic will increase again when economic problems start to be resolved.

In an effort to shed some light on factors that may mean new traffic forecasts (and rail passenger forecasts) are needed in future, the RAC Foundation, Office of Rail Regulation, Independent Transport Commission and Transport Scotland have been carrying out a research project for the past few months with academics from UCL. Our Chief Executive, Stephen Joseph, joined a range of transport specialists on the steering committee for this work, and the results have been published today and highlighted in a set of BBC1 'Inside Out' programmes broadcast tonight.

The study looks in depth at data on personal travel from the National Travel Survey (NTS), comparing three combined three-year periods (1995-7, 2000-2 and 2005-7) to ensure there was sufficient data for smaller sub-groups of the population. It doesn’t look further than 2007 in order to avoid having to consider a range of confounding factors brought in by the economic slump.

The report contains a lot of interesting data and avoids drawing hasty conclusions, but some highlights in terms of car travel and its implications include:

  • There are strong differences between the genders, with female driving increasing by 504 miles per year across the study period and male driving decreasing by 705 miles per year. On the growth in women’s car miles, the report says "About half of the growth in women’s private car mileage has been for commuting and work-related travel."
  • Age is another factor showing large differences, with younger male drivers seeing the most dramatic decrease (more than 2,000 miles a year for men in the 20s) and males over 60 seeing an increase in driving of approximately 1,000 miles a year. For women, only the age group under 20 saw a net reduction in miles driven.
  • For male drivers, the report says: "All age groups saw a reduction in average mileage in a company car, most of which was work related; for men in their 30s and 40s, in aggregate this accounted for most of their reduction in car use. For 50–59-year-olds, car travel would have increased but for the drop in company car mileage. The greatest reduction in average car mileage was among men in their 20s; the large majority of this reduction was in private cars, and the largest component was due to the drop in ‘visiting friends/relatives at home."
  • After stripping out company car use changes, London and people under 30, the study concludes that it is hard to find much of a Peak Car effect in the wider UK population in the years leading up to 2007. On this, the report says: "The so-called 'peak car' effect… seems to apply to the resident population and most of London, and to most groups of males at a national level; there is no evidence of such an effect among females living outside London."
  • In looking at the implications for policy, the report shows that official traffic forecasts are not yet taking into account many of the factors affecting changes in travel, in particular age cohort effects (the idea that a generation may carry its current travel behaviour forward as it ages, not simply adopt the patterns of the generation above it), differences between populations living in different sized settlements, different patterns in people born outside the UK and changes in company car usage - which shrank before the recession and are therefore unlikely to grow again afterwards.
  • One of the clearest policy changes highlighted by the report is the dramatic effect of changes in company car tax rules on company car ownership: "Figures from HM Revenue and Customs show that the notional taxable value of an employee being provided with free fuel for private use rose sharply during the late 1990s/early 2000s. This resulted in an 80% drop in the number of people provided with bot a company car and free fuel for private use between 1991/2 and 2010/11." Alongside these increases in taxes for company car benefits, the study found that company car mileage reported in the NTS dropped by nearly 40% between 1997/7 and 2005/7.
  • Another Government policy that seems to have had an effect during this period is land-use planning, which from the early 1990s until recently favoured town centre developments over greenfield sites. Through the application of a 'sequential test' to look for development sites on brownfield land or close to the town centre first, alternative modes of travel may have become more attractive or densities reached for more frequent and accessible public transport services. The report lists these spatial planning policies as another likely influencing factor on the observed changes in behaviour – see below for the full list.

The effect of the two policies above on car use is a clear reminder that we do have a choice of where we go from here. As we plan for economic growth to return, policies can build on the positive trends identified or actively work against them, for example current plans to build on the countryside with large numbers of homes and related roads, would encourage an even more car-dependent country in future.

The study stresses that London's drop in traffic isn't a simple accident caused by its location or size. In the city bus services haven’t been cut but vastly increased (up a third between 2001/2 and 2010/11), rail and tube services have increased in quality and quantity and the Congestion Charge for driving into the city centre has been set at a level that reflects the cost to the city’s health and economy of bringing cars into town. Meanwhile, the report says, road capacity for cars has not been increased and in some areas has been reduced in favour of bus and cycle lanes or pedestrians.

There is no reason why other large urban areas couldn’t follow London’s lead in future. What would have happened if Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield had adopted congestion charging soon after  London in 2003 and invested the proceeds in better public transport? Congestion charging is largely off the political agenda since the 'no' result in Manchester’s 2008 referendum. However, today’s report shows that simpler, less controversial policies aimed at investing in public transport ahead of new roads, at shortening the distance between homes, shops and workplaces – such as sequential planning – or aimed directly at reducing car use – such as company car tax rules – can still have a very significant effect on how much people drive.

What is clear is that we need to be very careful about how we respond to future forecasts and decide on transport policies if we are to make the right investment and planning decisions now. We have a choice of futures, and traffic levels are influenced by the policies we adopt not just by outside factors like population growth. Looking at a range of future scenarios, as the report urges the Department for Transport to do, we need to ask if we want to build on these positive factors behind Peak Car or face a bleaker future with more cars and more roads.

Read the full report here: http://www.racfoundation.org/research/mobility/on-the-move-main-research-page

From the 'On the Move' report – likely influencing factors on changes in car use and increases in rail patronage 1995/7 to 2005/7:

  • increases in car running costs, ranging from higher insurance costs to oil price rises and higher parking charges
  • income and GDP effects
  • taxation of company cars and private fuel provided by employers
  • reductions in traffic speeds on some roads(due to higher traffic levels or lower speed limits), resulting in lengthening journey times
  • reductions in effective road capacity for general traffic in urban areas (particularly in Central and Inner London)
  • improvements to rail and other public transport services (particularly, though not exclusively, in London)
  • spatial planning policies, encouraging the reuse of brownfield sites and the application of the ‘sequential test’ (i.e. look for development sites in or close to the town centre first) to proposals for new commercial and retail development
  • the impacts of a range of other government policies (e.g. ‘Smarter Choices’, which encourage behaviour change)
  • improvements in broadband/mobile communications, possibly contributing to:
       - reductions in food shopping by car
       - reductions in visiting friends and relatives at home
       - reductions in business trips by car
       - increasing relative attractiveness of train travel

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