Car use in decline? RAC Foundation report says Peak Car theory oversimplifies the issues

Reearch finds national picture clouded by big variations between regions, age groups and by gender

by Simon_MacMichael   December 4, 2012  

Car wheel at speed copyright Simon MacMichael.jpg

A new report from the RAC Foundation says that the much vaunted concept of ‘Peak Car’ – the hypothesis that private motor car use in a number of developed countries, measured by aggregate distance travelled annually, is now in decline – is an oversimplification of the issue. Instead, it is claimed, the national picture masks significant shifts at regional level, as well as between the genders and different age groups.

The report, called On The Move – Making sense of car and train travel trends in Great Britain, was compiled by researcher led by Professor Peter Jones of University College London.

They analysed historical trends in car and train use and wider travel patterns, and found some significant shifts going on in car use by gender, age and by region, concluding that “the notion that car traffic peaked in the mid-2000s is at best an oversimplification.”

The picture is further clouded by the onset of the economic downturn in 2007, which make it difficult to determine whether changing travel patterns are reflective of longer term trends or are a reaction to difficult economic circumstances.

Women, irrespective of age, were increasing their car use, while men, particularly those aged 20 to 50, were reducing their driving, which the authors attributed to a fall in company car use. Fewer men in their 20s are now driving than was the case in previous generations.

London, meanwhile, was seeing a particularly sharp fall in car use, beginning in 1998, but elsewhere, as in the South West, car use continued to rise until the onset of the economic downturn in 2008.

Train travel, meanwhile, was said to be increasing at a more or less uniform rate, irrespective of region. “It is striking,” the report observed, “that it has resulted from a larger proportion of the population using rail services over time, rather than more intensive use among the existing users.”

While the report does not aim to provide forecasts of how car use will evolve, it did say that “there is clear evidence of a switch from company cars to rail for commuting into London, and also some evidence of a switch in business travel from company cars to rail.”

It also cautioned that expectations of major population growth, which will affect some regions more than others, would make it even more difficult in future to try and unravel a national picture of what is going on.

The key findings are summarised in the report as:

• Average car driving mileage per head of population has changed little in Britain over the ten-year study period, but this masks large differences in trends between men (whose driving mileage has decreased) and women (whose driving mileage has increased); the largest drop has been for men in their 20s, whose average car mileage fell by about 2,000 miles per year.

• Most of the reduction in mileage by men (except for those in their 20s) can be accounted for by a sharp fall in company car use; this seems to be linked to the large increases in taxation on fuel provided for private use.

• Half of the increase in mileage by women can be accounted for by a rise in adult female licence holding (up from 56% in 1995/7 to 62% in 2005/7).

• London is different from the rest of the country: car travel is lower and rail travel higher among both London residents and those from outside who work in the capital.

• There has been a pattern of continuing growth in non-company car use outside London for those aged 30 and over; for this group, representing around 70% of the British population, there has been no ‘peak car’ effect.

• The substantial, 60% growth in GB rail travel is the result of more people starting to travel by train, rather than existing rail users travelling more.

• Rail mileage has grown most rapidly for business purposes – it has nearly tripled – and there is some evidence of a partial shift of business travel from company car to rail for men.

Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, commented: “This state of the nation report on how we get about reveals we overwhelmingly remain a country of car drivers.

“Strikingly it is women who have increasingly gotten behind the wheel. This is a reflection of their growing social and financial independence over recent decades.

“The big question is: what will happen with young men? Will they take up driving as they age and their domestic and financial circumstances change, or will they go their whole lives without feeling the need to get a car?

“There has been much talk of ‘peak car’ – the idea that individual car use has reached a plateau – but strip out the one-off impact of a collapse in company car mileage and prior to the recession we were actually driving more.

“Let’s not forget about population growth. An extra ten million people are predicted for the UK over couple of decades and whatever we do individually will be dwarfed by the travel needs of these extra people.

“We must recognise that future transport demand will vary by time, place and demography. Every one of us has different transport needs and a simple one-size-fits-all approach will not work.”

Some 48 hours or so before BBC One screens the War on Britain’s Roads documentary, which has already been roundly condemned by politicians and cycling campaigners, the channel’s flagship regional news magazine programme, Inside Out, this evening covered the RAC Foundation report, with the broadcaster posing the question of whether Britain’s love affair with the car is over.

The report, by BBC News transport correspondent Richard Westcott, was covered in the national segment of the weekly programme, with most regions devoting the show exclusively to transport-related issues, but the actual content you got depends on where you live, with local stations also producing segments tailored to their specific audiences.

Inside Out North West and its sister show in Yorkshire both included a segment showing Paul Rose cycling the Way of The Roses trail from Morecambe to Bridlington to discover the secret behind its success, as well as trying to assess whether the post-Olympic boom in cycling is here to stay.

In the North East & Cumbria, the programme focused on the dangers facing cyclists on the region’s roads and included interviews with Carlton Reid, executive editor of BikeBiz and founder of the I Pay Road Tax website, plus Katja Leyendecker from the Newcastle Cycling Campaign.

The East Midlands version of the programme, meanwhile, looked at Nottingham-based Raleigh as it celebrates it 125th anniversary.


17 user comments

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It is an interesting bit of research. One thing I have noted is how few of the young people I know have taken their driving test. One of my nieces just passed her test and bought her first car, but I have two other nieces and two nephews, all of whom are old enugh to drive, and none of them yet has a driving licence.


posted by OldRidgeback [2580 posts]
4th December 2012 - 9:47


There's little doubt that in London and the South East, the influence of initiatives like the cycle hire scheme, investment in rail and the Olympics (with its emphasis on sustainable travel) has been huge.

Younger adults no longer see the need to learn to drive and to own a car. In fact, the majority view is that with high insurance and running costs, car ownership is no longer desirable. A mix of cycling/walking, using taxis and trains is viewed as being more cost effective.

posted by Campag_10 [153 posts]
4th December 2012 - 10:10


Its anecdotal i know but i (a 40 something father of three) is certainly driving a lot less than i was 10 years ago. My wife also - she cycles to work now.
Some of this is out of choice but the rising cost of running a car has been a huge motivator too. Combine this with fact that all the joy of driving has been sucked out over the years and it is now nothing more than a chore.
I agree with Campag too - young people are less inclined to learn to drive ive noticed - mainly because they cant afford to insure a car.
Its such a shame public transport and cycling infrastructure isnt keeping pace with the underlying trend away from car use.

posted by Some Fella [908 posts]
4th December 2012 - 10:44


It is almost inevitable that fewer and fewer people living in major urban centres will own cars, where it has long been a luxury that not many actually needed. One of the "drivers" (sorry) behind this will undoubtably be the "squeezed middle" (almost all of whom have owned cars up until now) having less disposable income due to evaporating work available in middle-income jobs. So whatever transport policies are or aren't proposed, I personally think this will be the case. That doesn't necessarily mean they will all start riding bikes though - they may switch to trains or walking, hopefully slashing our NHS bill at the same time. What the hell happens to the squeezed middle in more rural areas, I do not have a clue. Maybe like all over the world they will move to cities so they can go to work without having a car. Urbanisation dude. Thinking

theclaw's picture

posted by theclaw [75 posts]
4th December 2012 - 11:15


I'm 26 and have no desire whatsoever to own or drive a car.
Currently my commute is the best part of my day, evern in the cold and the wet. Why would i sacrifice that to spend it in the horrible environs of a car, spending a fortune and having a negative impact on my health?
I am extremely lucky however as my employer provides, showers, drying room, tool kit and covered bike racks. I feel if more provided these kind of facilities a lot more people would take to their bikes.

posted by karlowen [65 posts]
4th December 2012 - 12:38


With the UK Government spending less and less on roads, congestion is going to get worse and worse. Some people have already cottoned on to the fact that increased cycling reduces congestion. Young people almost certainly have been put off driving by high insurance costs, though in real terms owning and running a vehicle isn't as expensive now as it has been in the past.

There are still a lot of lemmings who seem to enjoy queuing in their cars in jams at peak periods though. I don't quite get it myself and while I've got a car I certainly don't use it for commuting. I've better things to do than waste my time in traffic jams.

I've been cycling in London for over 20 years and long ago realised that commuting on two wheels (either by bicycle or motorcycle) made a whole lot more sense than trying to drive anywhere in the city in a tin box. If the weather's bad I'll take public transport, but most of the time I commute on 2 wheels.

The car comes in handy for ferrying myself and my son and our bikes here and there when we're racing.


posted by OldRidgeback [2580 posts]
4th December 2012 - 13:13


Thankfully i'll generally get a club memeber to ferry me to races. Or if it's less than about 30k away i treat that as my warm up.

posted by karlowen [65 posts]
4th December 2012 - 14:00


I wonder why car use by women has increased so much?

new-to-cycling's picture

posted by new-to-cycling [47 posts]
4th December 2012 - 14:55


As the report mentions, women's independence in general has increased over the years. Less housewives, more with careers (rather than mere 'jobs') therefore earning enough to fund car ownership, increased salary parity between the genders.

That's before you get onto the other conversation about road design and traffic conditions/hostility meaning that the majority of cyclists are battle-hardened males, and females/children opting for less daunting methods of travel.

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice...

posted by notfastenough [3723 posts]
4th December 2012 - 15:26


Women also tend to use a car when the take exercise – like driving to the gym or a country park to go for a walk.

posted by Campag_10 [153 posts]
4th December 2012 - 15:51


I would suggest that women still tend to have more domestic duties where a car is actually more useful, like ferrying children between activities, going to the supermarket, that sort of thing. So they are probably not all just driving to the gym, campag_10 Smile

Cycling around the place solo, or maybe plus one on the front, works fine but while the roads may be ok for "battle-hardened males" on roadbikes Wink , the environment is still not a nice one for larger, lower-speed cargo bikes full of children and groceries, no matter who is piloting.

I will give it a go when I am in that situation (battle-hardened female that I am Smile ) but I can see why many don't see it as an option, especially when they are transporting their most precious cargo down roads where their contemporaries speed around in massive urban assault vehicles (it's 'safer' you see, the 'dangerous' ones are those who get in the way...).

That is the acid test here, the roads will be fit for cycling when women feel they can safely transport their babies about by bike, and children can ride to school. Any piece of infrastructure that doesnt allow this is, in my view, a waste of everyones time, a bit like a new footpath that is only good for fast runners (cycle superhighway, anyone?).

sparrow_h's picture

posted by sparrow_h [35 posts]
4th December 2012 - 18:11


^^^ Agree with Some Fella

I've not used my car for 8 months now. The price of LPG has shot up like Diesel did when it was first introduced and is no longer cheap. Plus, the roads are so congested. I really don't miss driving and my car at all.

Agree with Campag also - My Son and Daughter wish to learn to drive, but only to increase their job prospects after Uni.

mingmong's picture

posted by mingmong [242 posts]
4th December 2012 - 18:23


How typical of a car lobby group, especially the RAC Foundation, to argue that the general trend masks various other changes, and then attempt to remove company car use from the analysis so as to imply that car use is actually increasing.

They refer to company car journeys for commuting or business and the move to train travel but in fact the great majority of company cars are rarely if ever used for business purposes.

Company cars are - or were - a tax-advantaged perk. At one time the tax benefit attached to a car, and especially to free fuel, was considerably less than the actual value of the benefit. That is why employers provided it - doh!

The tax advantage was steadily stripped away, partly because it was unfair to taxpayers who were not provided with cars, and partly because it encouraged environmentally bad behaviour. Hence company car taxation based on engine capacity/carbon emissions.

You then saw a trend, as I experienced when I used to be eligible for a company car, to offering employees a choice - you can spend a budget of, say, £500 a month an leasing a company car, or you can have the cash and do what you like with it. This same trend, of flexible benefits, extended to various other things like childcare vouchers, more contributions to your pension, or additional holiday in exchange for parts of your cash salary.

Nowadays, many employers don't even offer a car as a choice, they skip straight to the cash allowance.

Fact is, if you strip away tax subsidies like those, the company car really loses its appeal. Once you are back in the real world of buying, financing, insuring, and fuelling a car yourself, many people will be cannier about how, or indeed if, they do it.

posted by Paul M [343 posts]
4th December 2012 - 21:11


We as a family are using the car a lot less these days, most of my mileage has changed in the last few years and is mostly for work, not for pleasure. We have moved house so as to be closer to the kids schools family and my wife’s work which has enabled them to be able to walk or cycle. We have sold the second car. I now cycle not just for fun but use my bike to free up the car so that my wife can take the kids to those activity that are part of busy family life (if I am off work or there is the infrastructure there we will often use our bikes to go to the local swimming pool ect). Is this the real change that is boosting cycling? 40 Something middle of the road types that see that the future is not car based!

posted by 60kg lean keen ... [71 posts]
5th December 2012 - 13:41


This absolutely fits with my wife's opinions, and mine also, especially the last paragraph.

posted by don_don [149 posts]
5th December 2012 - 20:19


i can understand the increased use in the southwest , public transport is a joke and cycling facilities are slowy being introduced but not quick enough its the chicken and egg scenario again!
Meanwhile we are trying to instigated "the yellow brick road" here in cornwall but funding is woefully slow to coming through ce la vie!!!

andrew miners's picture

posted by andrew miners [46 posts]
6th December 2012 - 10:08


I'm not surprised by the drop in male young drivers, the cost of insurance is so high. With the new EU rules about gender netural insurance starting at the end of this month the cost for young femail drivers will also rise sharply.
Hopefully habits formed in their 20s will stick for life.

My parents generation remeber when there were far fewer cars and so tend to drive everywhere, my generation seems to drive much less.
For example I or my other half would never drive into central London, but her parents will (as thats what they always have done).

posted by thereverent [354 posts]
6th December 2012 - 17:14