December Key Indicator: Cars v Public Transport

public transport needs investmentEnvironmentalists advocate the use of public transport instead of cars as this will reduce carbon emissions and help combat climate change.

Achieving this is not only about changing people’s attitudes but will involve a significant shift in government strategy and investment to make public transport as convenient as cars.

This is an issue for urban and rural locations outside London, which has a relatively high usage of public transport and arguably offers an excellent network buses, tubes and trains that make it very convenient for the public.

Arguably, efforts to reduce car use in London have been helped by the introduction of the congestion charge and both the Low Emission and Ultra Low Emission Zones (LEZ). Indeed, other cities, such as Bristol, are said to be considering similar restrictions.

It is certainly the case that New Car Registrations have been falling drastically in the last two years.

According to figures published by Autoexpress, the UK’s new-car market suffered a significant decline in October 2019, with 6.7 per cent fewer registrations than in October 2018.

But I do not believe this is due to changing attitudes or any improvement of public transport infrastructure, but instead think it is down to the congestion of cars clogging up roads and falling consumer confidence as reflected by a drop in spending on capital items.

The Urban Transport Group research is claiming that significant shifts “are changing the face of transport and travel in city regions” as reported by Citymetric. As one example, it reports that more people now commute into central Birmingham by rail than car, with growth in rail use also appearing in other locations including Huddersfield (by 91 per cent), Coventry (by 143 per cent) and Newton-le- Willows (by 120 per cent).

However, the picture of changing travel patterns is much more mixed and nuanced than the above would suggest and one of the most comprehensive analysis of travel patterns is the annual Government publication, the National Travel Survey (NTS).

Its most recent annual report published in November and covering the year to the end of 2018 says: “The average number of yearly trips made by people living in England have increased each year from 2015 to 2018. The 986 trips people made on average in 2018 was the highest since 2009.”

However, it also finds that the increase is mostly accounted for by an increase in walking trips and also that between 2002 and 2018, average trips, distance and time have decreased. Cycling trips have also increased by 50% between 2002 and 2015, it finds.

It also finds that the proportion of households without a car has fallen from 48% in 1971 (based on the Census) to 24% in 2018 while the proportion of households with more than one car increased over this period, from 8% to 35%.

Nevertheless, as the report points out, the devil is in the detail, of which there is a great deal: “the many factors [for the change] might include changing demographic patterns, changing patterns of trips, and the impact of new technologies influencing the demand for travel, for example the increase in online social networking, the capability for home working and online shopping.

On public transport, however, the picture is mixed with an increase in rail trips and distances per person and a decrease in local bus use.

Surprisingly, commuting trips have also decreased in recent years which the survey suggests is due to workers travelling to work on fewer days per week, a growth in trip-chaining (where people combine two or more trips for differing purposes), a growth in the number of workers who do not have a fixed usual workplace and a growth in working from home, and part-time and self-employment.

Is it time to rethink public transport provision?

Both rail and bus transport were deregulated in the mid-1990s, leading to such services being contracted out to private providers.

Arguably, particularly with bus services, this has led to a massive decline in rural bus services because the provider companies are businesses and not interested in uneconomic, loss-making routes. As local authorities have been ever more cash strapped, many have had to reduce or cancel subsidised, loss-making rural routes, leaving rural dwellers and businesses with little option but to use their cars.

According to Better Transport, the campaigning group, “Since 2009, well over 3,000 local authority supported bus services have been cut or reduced”.

However, reasons given by respondents in the NTS for not using public transport more include:

  • Rising ticket prices;
  • Poor customer service;
  • Rush hour inconvenience;
  • Delays and unreliability.

Clearly, it is time to revisit public transport infrastructure if we are to reduce car usage and combat climate change.

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