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

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.


Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.