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UK road traffic falls to lowest levels in 65 years due to lockdown

Traffic returns to levels last seen in 1955 – when there were more than seven times fewer licensed motor vehicles

Traffic in the UK has fallen to its lowest level for 65 years due to the coronavirus lockdown, with travel on the nation’s roads plummeting to levels not seen since 1955, according to The Guardian – a time when there were more than seven times fewer licensed motor vehicles in the country, and three years before the country’s first section of motorway opened.

The government’s message for people to stay at home except for essential travel has resulted in trips made by car and van, as well as on foot or on bike, falling by around three-quarters compared to before the coronavirus outbreak.

Bus traffic, meanwhile, has fallen by 60 per cent, and that of heavy goods vehicles by 40 per cent, with many lorries still on the road to deliver supplies to shops and essential businesses as well as hospitals.

Graphs released at the government’s daily press conference show that the decline in traffic was accelerating well before Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a fortnight ago that people should stay at home, other than for essential journeys.

Government transport use March 2020 (source COBR).PNG

Public transport use has also fallen dramatically as many businesses began shifting towards a working-from-home model, even before the government said that only essential workers should continue to commute.

As of September last year, there were 38.9 million licensed motor vehicles in Great Britain – up from a little over 5 million in 1955, a more than sevenfold increase.

The Guardian reports that traffic data analysis firm Vivacity, which collates information from traffic cameras across England, saw car journeys begin to fall shortly after the government said on 12 March that its response to the pandemic was moving from the delay to contain phase.

Bus, van and lorry journeys began to fall later, after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the lockdown on 23 March, and there had been a rise in HGV traffic in the week preceding that.

The company’s CEO, Mark Nicholson, attributed that to supermarkets having to replenish stock due to panic buying.

“We interpret that as, because people were suddenly panic buying, they needed to do many more deliveries to shops across the country,” he said.

The company noted that journeys by cyclists were falling more slowly than those by pedestrians, partly because the latter were avoiding public transport, and also because some would have switched to cycling for their commutes.

The reduction in motor traffic is also leading to a fall in harmful emissions and an improvement in air quality in towns and cities, and Nicholson said that there could continue to be an ongoing benefit should the current restrictions result in more people continuing to work from home, at least part of the time, once the lockdown is lifted.

“If that manages to decrease traffic on the roads then that would be a great outcome from an environmental perspective,” he explained.

Last week, data from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (link is external)(NCAS) showed big falls in levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM2.5) in 10 UK cities.

> Air quality improves in UK cities as people leave cars at home

NCAS director of science, Professor Ally Lewis, said: “If you look at traffic volumes, they're still going down. And so we probably haven't reached the bottom yet.

“A few days ago, we were talking about journeys by car going down by about a third, and now it's nearly a 50-60 per cent reduction.

“So, it's possible if transport keeps declining, the signal we detect could get even larger.”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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Jem PT | 4 years ago
1 like

It is definitely a case of making the most of these quiet roads while they last. The other day I was cycling along from Hampton Court towards Sunbury. Normally the predemoninat smell is traffic fumes. This time I coauld smell the algae wafting up from the Thames. I think I almost prefered the traffic fumes !!

Notbuilt2climb | 4 years ago
1 like

My normal 3 mile commute is now so much quicker.  I'm actually disappointed when a traffic light turns red and I have to stop. But I do stop.  Am going to enjoy it while it lasts though.

I'm noticing more cars that are sticking to the 20mph limit but there are still some that feel 30mph+ is acceptable.  I'm also seeing more cyclists going through red lights. Not good.

kingleo | 4 years ago

It's how it was when I started cycling with my club 63 years ago - early Sunday morning time trials, about zero traffic, and the roads had very few potholes.

MrGear | 4 years ago

... And long may it continue.

Hopefully people will start to rebel against having to breathe in lung-fulls of pollution. Even those who previously drove everywhere and hadn't considered they were part of the problem might now realise that life doesn't have to be like that.

I went for a walk around the block this morning. Virtually no traffic apart from one guy idling a transit van who I could smell for about 200 meters before I reached him.

CygnusX1 replied to MrGear | 4 years ago

MrGear wrote:

apart from one guy idling a transit van who I could smell for about 200 meters before I reached him.

That's a serious BO issue he has there, or perhaps his means of ensuring social distancing around himself? angel

HarrogateSpa replied to MrGear | 4 years ago
1 like

Idling transit vans while texting, or to prove you're not parked on double yellows, is a national pastime.

It would be great if it could continue, but unfortunately as soon as they get the green light everyone will be straight back in their cars.

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