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Transport trends: the good news

A new government report shows that the British public is more mobile than ever before. But policy-makers see that as a problem.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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It’s rare that a government report makes for exciting reading. But the 2005 edition of Transport Trends, published by the UK Department for Transport in January 2006, paints a striking picture of mobility in Britain today (1). For the general public, travelling within Britain and abroad is cheaper and easier than ever, and many more people are able to take advantage of the possibilities this offers.

So how is it that one news report can claim: ‘All the main trends in the report are negative’ (2)? In our downbeat times, it seems that even a basic good news story – that the British public is more able to get around than ever before – has to be presented as a problem. So the news report in question presents the significant increase in car traffic, made possible by a rise in people’s disposable income of over 95 per cent, as a problem of congestion and gridlock. The negative ‘main trends’ to which it refers are a decline in walking and cycling. And the government report itself devotes as much energy to data and speculation charting the number of steps people take a day, or worrying about the impact of cars upon the environment, as it does to the truly newsworthy facts detailing the vast improvement in mobility for large sections of society today.

Let’s put this miserablism back in its box. Consider the few facts below, taken from the government’s Transport Trends report, and ask yourself: would it really be better to plod along on foot?

Britain is more mobile than ever before.

Between 1980 and 2004, the total domestic passenger distance travelled increased by 62 per cent, from 491 to 797 billion passenger kilometres. Much of this increase is accounted for by a rise in road travel and air travel. Since 1980, road traffic has grown by 81 per cent, and car traffic has risen by 85 per cent. Also since 1980, the number of journeys made by national rail has gone up, by 43 per cent. Most striking of all is air travel overseas: UK residents made 64 million overseas visits in 2004, compared with 18 million in 1980.

Mobility is more affordable than ever before.

The more money you have, the more travelling you do. But Transport Trends indicates that the gap between the travelled and the travel-nots may be narrowing. Between 1989/91 and 2004, there was little change in the average annual distance travelled by the two highest-earning groups (illustrated as the fourth and fifth real income quintile), whereas the other three quintiles have all experienced an increase: for the lowest income group, of 33 per cent.

Access to a car has increased across all income groups since 1989/91, and is also most notable in the lowest income group – 46 per cent of these households now have access to a car, compared with 27 per cent 15 years ago. Over a quarter of households now have access to two or more cars, more than the proportion of households without access to a car.

Mobility is more equal than ever before.

It’s no coincidence that, as women play a greater role in work and public life, they are also taking advantage of the freedom and independence allowed by driving. Sixty-one per cent of women have driving licences today, compared with 44 per cent in 1989/91.

Older people are benefiting from the advantages of driving: from 1989/91 to 2004, the proportion of people aged 70 and over who held a full driving licence increased from 32 to 47 per cent. It seems to be the younger people who are choosing not to drive, with the proportion of 17- to 20-year olds with a licence falling from 43 per cent 15 years ago to 26 per cent now. Whether they’ve simply been priced out of the driving market by insurance companies’ outrageous premiums, or whether their reluctance to get behind the wheel connects with the broader trend of ongoing dependence upon their parents, is not indicated by the statistics.

Mobility is safer than ever before.

Transport Trends tells us bluntly that ‘fatality rates are lower in 2004 than in 1980 for all forms of transport’. For car occupants, fatality rates more than halved between 1980 and 1993, then declined slowly to reach 2.7 deaths per billion passenger kilometres in 2004. The lowest fatality rates were for air travel, at less than 0.1 per billion passenger kilometres since 1990; for bus, coach and rail passengers, the average rate is 0.4.

Back on roads: in 2004, the fatality rate for pedestrians was half the 1980 level, and that for pedal cyclists was three-fifths. While road traffic has increased by 81 per cent between 1980 and 2004, the number of road accidents resulting in personal injury has fallen by 18 per cent. Since 1980, there has been a fall of 68 per cent in the number of children killed or seriously injured in road accidents.

So what’s the problem?

As any member of the public will tell you, transport in the UK today is very far from perfect. It takes too long to get anywhere (thanks, in no small part, to the underinvestment and lack of planning in the roads system), it is too expensive (especially, as the government’s report confirms, if you want to use trains or buses), and on an everyday level, simply getting from A to B is a bit of a headache.

But these problems, the ones that preoccupy people in their daily lives, are to do with the fact that the transport system isn’t good enough. By contrast, the problems that preoccupy the political class are overblown abstract issues to do with global warming, obesity or the state of the local high street, and the response is continually to blame the transport system for being somehow too good.

Policy suggestions revolve around such mean-spirited propositions as pricing people out of cheap air travel, using congestion charging to keep people off the very roads they want to use, and cajoling people to get on their bikes or their feet to make the mundane journeys to work or school. What kind of political vision is this, which presents improved mobility as a problem and champions staying at home or plodding on foot as a positive alternative, good for our health and possibly good for the environment (although nobody really knows for sure)?

We need to recognise the prejudices of policy-makers for what they are, and focus on the kind of travelling experiences that people want and need. Forget gridlock – it’s the political paralysis of the transport debate that is stopping us from moving forward.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Transport

(1) See Transport Trends, 2005 edition

(2) ‘Dependency on cars too great to avoid gridlock’, The Times (London), 31 January 2006

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Topics Politics

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