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Report on Motoring 2015: 2. Car dependence and commuting

Blog post   •   Sep 08, 2015 00:03 BST

Over the course of a typical week, most motorists will use a variety of modes of transport. The car remains the key way of getting around – but the extent to which drivers rely on their cars depends on how convenient, cheap and quick the alternatives are, which in turn is determined by where they live and where they want to go.

Dependence on cars has a significant impact on motorists’ shopping and leisure habits: the importance they place on being able to park at low cost and without hassle means they are likely to favour out-of-town retail complexes over their local high street if parking is scarce or over-priced in the latter.


2.1 The car is still king

An overwhelming majority of motorists would struggle to cope without their cars, this year’s RAC Report on Motoring has found once again.

Eight in ten drivers agree with the statement ‘I would find it very difficult to adjust my lifestyle to being without a car’. This dependence on cars has not changed significantly across the driving population when compared with responses to the same question a decade ago. Almost a third (29%) of motorists say they have become more reliant on their cars in the past 12 months against 9% who report the opposite.

London is the least car-dependent area in the UK with just 40% of motorists ‘strongly agreeing’ that they would struggle to adjust to life without their vehicles (the nationwide figure is 52%).

This is no doubt due to its extensive public transport network, high levels of congestion and expensive parking. These factors also mean that London is seeing the highest take-up of car clubs where, rather than owning vehicles outright, individuals can rent cars parked near their home for periods as short as an hour. Figures published recently by Transport for London show that at the start of 2015 there were already 135,000 car club members in the capital (15).

Car clubs can be a more cost-effective way of having the use of a car for those journeys where only a car meets the need. And given the higher cost of living in London, this could be one way for residents to keep their travel costs down.

Car dependence increases gradually with age and, unsurprisingly, motorists who have company cars or whose vehicles are used as part of their work are the most reliant on being able to drive – of this group, 91% strongly agreed that it would be difficult to adjust to life without a car.

“There is a movement with young people, particularly in cities like London, away from car ownership. They are taking advantage of car-loan schemes and car clubs, where you can have a vehicle for anything from three hours to three weeks. For example, some people might decide to hire a Smart Car to use in the city during the week because it is small and easier to park, but they might choose something bigger, like a Volvo or BMW, at the weekend for trips out to the country. There are a growing number of younger motorists who want the use of a vehicle but not ownership.”

Sarah Sillars, Chief Executive, Institute of Advanced Motorists


2.2 The way to work

A majority of motorists use cars as the principal means of getting to work with 50% driving themselves and a further 13% travelling as passengers with a family member, friend or colleague. Use of a car for the daily commute is particularly high in the North West, where 57% of motorists drive themselves to work. This statistic should be borne in mind by the Government when drawing up plans to improve the transport infrastructure in northern England as part of its ‘Northern Powerhouse’ initiative. Just under two-thirds of motorists (62%) use other forms of transport instead of, or as well as, their own cars when commuting. 15% of motorists use some form of public transport to get to work. Walking is the way of getting to work for 12% of motorists, while 4% cycle.

As might be expected, there are significant differences in commuting modes depending on where people live. Residents of Britain’s towns and cities are more likely to rely on public transport, with 32% doing so – and in London this rate climbs to over half (55%). A fifth of urban dwellers walk to work, though many of these do so in combination with other modes of transport whilst in London almost one in ten cycles.

Men make up the majority (59%) of cyclist commuters; however, this is not surprising given that Department for Transport figures show that 20% of men in England cycle compared with just 10% of women.

“The flexibility shown by drivers is the most interesting aspect of these findings. When you ask people what they think about congestion, they are generally much more relaxed than you would expect them to be and I think that’s because people adjust their times and their routes to avoid the most congested roads. It’s a self-adjusting phenomenon.”

David Leibling, Transport and Motoring Consultant


2.3 A more challenging commute

Commuting by car is not seen as a particularly enjoyable experience but the alternatives are widely viewed as being too expensive or too much hassle, according to this year’s Report on Motoring. Of the 50% of motorists who use their car as the means of getting to their place of work, 45% say this is because public transport is ‘impractical’, while 44% say alternative options aren’t quick enough.

More than a quarter (27%) say they need their cars to use in the course of their work. But only 11% say they commute by car because they enjoy driving. The perceived increasing prevalence of roadworks is adding to motorists’ pain: 69% say they now see more roadworks than a few years ago, while a majority (53%) report that their journey time has increased, either as a result of lane closures or general congestion. Drivers are finding innovative ways of dealing with these inconveniences. For example, 45% now say they make changes to the times they start and finish work in order to avoid the busiest periods on the roads.

For most motorists, public transport is simply not practical or cheap enough to provide a compelling alternative to the car. Over half (56%) say they would drive less if public transport options were ‘better’.

“The data shows that congestion is actually declining as a concern. Perhaps people are becoming so used to being stuck in traffic jams that it’s now just seen as part of their daily routine.”

Graeme Paton, Transport Correspondent, The Times


2.4 Parking problems

The cost and availability of parking spaces is a key factor for motorists when deciding whether to use their cars and where, for example, to go shopping.

Parking can be an emotive topic, and there are regular reports in the media about over-zealous parking wardens, cowboy clampers and sky-high hospital parking charges.

Whether it is the result of this type of coverage or due to bitter personal experience, a significant proportion of motorists feel they are getting an increasingly raw deal when it comes to parking. Almost three-quarters of motorists (74%) believe that parking is more expensive than a year ago in their local town centre or high street. Just under half (47%) think that fewer parking spaces are available on the street where they live, twice as many as the number (23%) that believe there are now more spaces.

Almost two-thirds (63%) say that there are now fewer high street or town centre spaces than a year ago, and the same proportion believes that increases in parking restrictions and charges are driving shoppers away from their local high street. Clearly, the difficulty and expense of parking in urban centres will inevitably have a hugely damaging impact on the businesses located there in the longer term.

Figures from the BRC/Springboard Footfall and Vacancies Monitor published in June 2015 showed that the rate at which shoppers were deserting town centres and high streets in favour of out-of-town retailers was increasing. Footfall in May 2015 was down 1.5% on British high streets and down 2% in urban shopping centres when compared with April.

The report blamed the exorbitant cost of high street parking as well as increased town centre congestion for this ongoing trend. But these are not the only problems associated with parking: 73% of drivers think that the typical parking space is too small for today’s cars, largely due to the width of most cars having increased in recent years to accommodate side impact protection systems and air bags. Government is clearly aware of this problem and has recently taken steps to encourage local authorities to make high street parking free, or at least more affordable.

And the way drivers pay for parking needs to be made simpler and fairer: 78% say that machines should offer the option to buy tickets with a credit or debit card, and 88% believe machines should always give change.

There is widespread mistrust of private parking companies. Two-thirds of motorists (65%) think their charges are unfair compared with just 40% who think the fees levied by local authorities are unfair. These fears will have undoubtedly been fuelled by a court case earlier this year regarding the legality of penalty charges levied by private parking companies.

In April 2015, judges in the Court of Appeal dismissed a case brought by a motorist from Chelmsford, Essex, who had claimed that an £85 fine for overstaying in a private car park was disproportionate and therefore unlawful.

In their ruling, the judges described the level of the fine as neither ‘extravagant’ nor ‘unconscionable’. However, the Supreme Court is now hearing an appeal against this judgement.

“There is also the issue that as people are getting older, they can’t always check over their shoulder so freely. They also need more room to open doors in car parking spaces to get out more easily.”

Sarah Sillars, Chief Executive, Institute of Advanced Motorists
“You can look at examples around the country where [if meter-free zones], and in those areas where they are thinking very carefully about how they attract more people on to their high street and into those smaller town centres. Those areas seem to be doing better and I think it’s really important that councils understand that and develop their policies to make sure that they are attracting people to come and shop and frequent the high street.”

Marcus Jones, High Streets Minister

A significant number of drivers (39%) are also concerned that their local council is using parking revenues to subsidise other areas of expenditure unrelated to motoring. However, this is dwarfed by concerns about parking at hospitals. Almost nine in ten motorists (88%) think parking in hospitals should be free – this view is even more prevalent among those aged 65 or older (93%).

Finally, there is scepticism that the Government’s introduction of a ten-minute grace period on council-run paid parking spaces will lead to a reduction in penalty charges. Almost six in ten (58%) motorists say that the grace period – which is supposed to give drivers a bit of extra time to get back to their vehicles – will have no effect on the number of fines issued, presumably because they expect that the ten-minute period will be treated simply as part of the permitted parking period rather than as a contingency for unforeseen delays affecting drivers whilst returning to their vehicles.