Monday 17 December 2012

Car ownership is falling in London but car traffic is falling even faster

The last couple of weeks have seen some interesting figures confirming the decline of car culture in London. First, the 2011 Census results showed, as summarised by London City Cyclists, that the number of car-free households is growing across Inner London. Then the National Travel Survey showed that car travel per person in London fell 22% in just seven years (table NTS9904 here). Finally, as pointed out by Angus Hewlett on Twitter, here's a survey (admittedly from a fortnight ago) showing that "One in seven Britons said they were part of a household which owned a car that was only used occasionally", a figure that rose to one in five in London.

That survey suggests that car ownership has some way to fall yet in London. To get a better sense of this I plotted the trend in distance travelled by car (from DfT table TRA8905a) against the trend in the number of cars (from table VEH0204) for London and England as a whole in the chart below. Both series are rebased to start at 100 in 2000.

What this shows is that in England as whole the number of cars has risen 15% since 2000 and the distance travelled by car just 2%, while in the Greater London area the number of cars has risen 5% but the distance travelled by car has fallen 13%. The leftward turn in both lines is an indicator that distance driven per car is falling in both London and England, but it's falling particularly fast in London, in fact by 15% since 2000. The average car in London drives around 9,100 km per year (down from around 11,000 in 2000), compared to 13,800 km a year for the average car in England as a whole (also down, from 15,400 in 2000).

So it's no surprise that there are lots of 'ghost cars' hardly being driven in London, or that, particularly in the last few years, many Londoners are deciding that it's just not worth the cost and hassle of owning one. I'd expect this trend to continue for some time yet and the number of cars in London to shrink further (though it is worth bearing in mind that across London as a whole there are more cars than there were in 2000). I just hope we use the extra space freed up for useful things rather than just dropping the cost of parking even further.


  1. The “survey” you refer to appears to be merely one of those lobby exercises aimed at something else entirely. In this case it is the RAC, either guessing or possibly compiling responses from self-selected recipients of their membership publications, to make a case for cutting fuel duties – as indeed happened a few days later in the Chancellor’s autumn statement.

    As it happens, I am one of those 22% or however many people who leave my car at home when I travel to work – my office is near Fleet Street in London and driving would almost certainly take longer than the train to Waterloo and a quick pedal across Blackfriars bridge, and with central London parking charges the train is probably cheaper too.

    Frankly, I just don’t buy the idea that people buy cars and then don’t drive them because of the fuel costs. A typical family saloon driven say 10,000 miles will consume about 1,200 litres of fuel, at a cost of about £1,700. Insurance, annual maintenance, new tyres etc and VED will eat up at least as much again. By the time you add depreciation and the finance costs the fuel cost has shrunk to perhaps 25-30% of the total. Factoring in the cost of parking (or having a house with off-street parking instead of relying on the street outside) shrinks that even further. Cutting your mileage a little is a pimple on the car’s backside.

    I think it’s great that people are driving less. I am OK with people having cars, just not with them using them, or at any rate when they don’t need to. The problem with the economics of the car, and the taxation of cars, is that it positively encourages their use. Once you have paid the humungous cost of having one in the first place, driving it costs virtually nothing, and certainly less than entirely viable alternatives such as commuter buses or trains (apart from into the centre of London). It becomes more convenient than walking or cycling to “pop down to the shops for a pint of milk” as a letter-writer to a south east local paper once put it – a more disreputable argument for the car I can barely think of.

    What we need is partly to rebalance the economics, so that owning a car is perhaps cheaper but using it is considerably more expensive, allowing public transport to compete on cost, and partly to make it less convenient, eg making cars drive the long way round while pedestrians and cyclists can cut through short-cuts, or by strict limits on the availability of parking spaces.

    Better still of course, in urban situations at least, would be to encourage car sharing schemes and car clubs. After all, cars don’t just take up space in the <10% of the time when they are actually being driven, but also in the >90% of the time when many of them block up space at the kerb – or worse still, across the kerb.

  2. Great article. Nice to see it's happening. Long may it continue.
    Paul M said:
    [begin quote]What we need is partly to rebalance the economics, so that owning a car is perhaps cheaper but using it is considerably more expensive,...[end quote]
    Agreed. To that end the findings of Dresden University would seem relevant. (see below):
    If I have read it correctly, the external costs per registered car in the UK (2008 figures) totalled just over Euro 2 000 each year. Over a decade this means an average of Euro ~20 000 per driver. This puts us in the top [worst] four countries [EU-27] in terms of subsidy for car drivers. This is a huge sum and were it passed onto the drivers, it would deter many from driving and encourage many to drive less. Some of these costs are inbuilt, due to the manufacture of the car, whereas others are the consequence of driving. So in all fairness, these costs should be split between purchase and fuel.

    I believe that this needs to be disseminated to every car driver who said, or wrote 'cyclists don't pay road-tax!'

    The True Costs of Automobility: External Costs of Cars
    Overview on existing estimates in EU-27
    Dresden, October 12th, 2012

  3. I wonder.
    I live in outer London - less than 10 minutes from taking the handbrake off to being on a Motorway (M11), but if I want to go in to town I take the train/tube. Short local journeys are walk or cycle.
    But, when I need the car, I NEED it! And my minimum jouirney is about 12 miles one-way.
    Even so, I have not done more than 3000 miles in year for over 5 years now .....


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