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Drivers’ dependency on the car has jumped, RAC survey reveals

Patrick McDonnell
24 September 2018
Changes in car dependency 2012-18


Drivers’ dependency on the car has jumped in the last year, with third (33%) of motorists – the equivalent to 13.2m – saying they are more reliant on their cars now than 12 months earlier, compared to just 27% in 2017, reveals research conducted by the RAC.

The motoring association's annual Report on Motoring is based on a representative survey of 1,808 motorists.

Data from the study of motoring trends, now in its 30th year, shows car dependency had been dropping steadily since 2012, when 31% of motorists said they were more reliant on a car than the year before. 

Of those who said their reliance on their cars has increased in the past year, 14% said they were much more dependent, which the RAC says is a statistically significant rise of 5% on the 2017 figure. In contrast, the proportion that reported no change dropped by 6% to 55%.

The RAC also found that the percentage of drivers whose car use has increased in the last year rose for the first time in four years. In 2018, 27% of motorists say they are using their cars more than the year before, while only 18% say their use has reduced. In 2017 the percentages were 20% for increased car use and 24% less car use. This means there has been a 12% shift from less to more car use, which represents some 4.8m drivers.

The top reasons people gave for using their cars more were: having a greater need to transport family members (34%); having a longer commute (32%); and family and friends having moved further away (27%).

Almost a quarter of respondees (24%) blamed a deterioration in public transport services for using their car more often: 44% of this group blaming public transport reliability; 39% higher fares; and a third (33%) saying it was due to cuts in local services. 

The RAC says this claim is supported by a report from the Campaign for Better Transport, which found local authority funding in England and Wales for bus services had been cut by 45% over the past eight years and 3,347 routes have been reduced or withdrawn.

Government data also shows that people are taking fewer bus journeys than 10 years ago, says the RAC. On top of this, rail commuters have recently suffered large-scale disruption to services in several regions with the Office for Rail and Road (ORR) reporting delays on the rail network are the worst for 12 years.

However, 59% of those surveyed state they would use their car less if public transport was better, with only 11% disagreeing with this statement. 

In the first Report on Motoring, published in 1989, the number of people who stated they would use their car less if public transport was better was 23%. Over the course of the next decade the percentage slowly rose, rising to 68% in 2008, which the RAC suggests was response to the price of petrol going above £1 a litre in November 2007, a rise by 20p a litre in just nine months.

This year, the RAC asked people who claimed they would use their car less if public transport was better were asked why they don't currently use public transport more. 

  • 44% said they found fares were too high (a figure rising to 62% among young drivers aged 17-24)
  • 42% said services do not run when they need them to
  • 40% said they are not close enough to where they live or need to go 39% stated they do not run often enough
  • 31% claimed they do not run on time. 

Other popular reasons included: 25% saying both that services are too slow and too crowded; and 16% claiming there were too many cancellations.

Three-quarters of the motorists surveyed (75%) said they would find it very difficult to adjust their lifestyle to being without a car – a figure that has remained high since the first Report on Motoring was published in 1989, when it was 79%. 

When asked why, 61% said the car was essential for transporting people and going shopping, while 49% said they need a car for seeing family and friends who live further away. And 23% said there is simply no other way for them to get around due to where they live.

The expense of public transport was also a factor for a third of the motorists surveyed (33%), who claimed trains were more expensive than driving, and a fifth (22%) who said the same about buses.

Some 51% of motorists questioned agreed they were frustrated by the lack of feasible alternatives to using a car for short journeys they make in contrast to only 22% who disagreed with this statement and 26% who were undecided.

Motorists' concerns

This year’s Report on Motoring found that motorists’ most often cited concern is now the condition and maintenance of local roads. The report asked drivers to name the four motoring-related issues that concern them most from a list of the 20 most commonly raised, to produce a percentage that shows the level of overall ‘concern’ about each particular issue. 

Some 42% of motorists said the state of local roads was an issue of concern, and this proportion is significantly higher than the 33% recorded 12 months ago. The 42% figure translates to around 16 million UK drivers who are dissatisfied with the state of the country’s local roads. The RAC says this represents the highest level of concern for any single issue at any point over the last four years. 

The second largest concern in 2018 is motorists’ use of handheld mobile phones: 38% say this is a concern, down slightly on last year’s 40%. 

The cost of fuel is the third-ranked concern, although this was mentioned by just 29% of motorists. 

The fourth-ranked issue of total concern this year is the aggressive behaviour of other road users (28%), while drink-driving (27%) is ranked fifth, up from eighth place in 2017 (24%). 

A quarter of motorists (25%) cited the cost of insurance is a concern, and a similar proportion feel that about people driving without tax or insurance, although in both cases this is a slightly lower percentage than 12 months ago. 

Concern about congestion rose in 2016, but there has not been a further increase since then. In fact, there has been a small decrease – from 26% to 24% – in the percentage of motorists who say congestion or slower journey times is a concern, positioning this as the eighth-ranked concern. 

Figures from the Department for Transport indicate that traffic volumes rose by 1.3%. However, motorists appear less phased by this and more worried about road conditions than the number of cars on the roads this year. 

The RAC perspective

David Bizley, chief engineer at the RAC, said: “At a time when there is so much effort being put into tackling air quality issues and congestion, it is alarming to see that dependency on the car is actually the highest we have ever seen. While there is much talk about improving public transport, the reality is very different as buses and trains are not meeting public expectations, and in fact in some cases have actually gone backwards.

“Our research clearly shows many people don’t think public transport offers a viable alternative to the car for their needs, especially those living in more rural areas, 84% of whom say they would struggle to adjust to a car-free lifestyle in contrast to 70% of urban dwellers. 

“There is a definite willingness among motorists to use public transport more if only it were better. Consequently, people end up driving by default as they feel public transport is either too expensive, non-existent or just doesn’t go where or when they need it to.

“It is particularly frightening to think we have fewer people travelling by bus in 2018 than we did in 2008. We need greater investment in public transport so that where feasible, drivers have an alternative to sitting in traffic and contributing to poor air quality and congestion. And the key to this must surely be making public transport as attractive as possible by ensuring it is reliable, frequent, comfortable and affordable.

“We must make it easier for public transport to be used on the journeys that the majority of people make most often. At the very least there should be comprehensive park and ride schemes operating in every large city, removing the need for commuters to clog up city centres simply trying to get to and from work. We should also reverse the current trend and make more rather than less cash available for councils and combined authorities to improve bus services, in both urban and, particularly in, rural areas.

“While rail use is clearly popular, for the vast majority of people the most likely alternative mode of public transport is the bus. It is therefore essential the Government maintains strong investment in the UK’s roads – as buses, as well as cars, cyclists, and even trams, rely on good quality roads. But judging by the findings of this year’s RAC Report on Motoring, the car, however it is powered, is here to stay.”

What can drivers' do?

The RAC is encouraging drivers to make small changes, where feasible, to help cut overall car use and the resulting congestion and pollution. Below is a list of possible actions:

  • Swap one regular ‘solo’ car trip per week for a bus or train journey
  • Start car-sharing to work
  • Talk to their employer about adjusting working hours to avoid contributing to congestion
  • Use a sustainable form of transport, such as walking or cycling, for a local journey – 24% of all car journeys are two miles or less
  • People should write to their MP if they feel public transport in their area is in need of improvement.

David Bizley concluded: “Many will be surprised that a quarter of all car journeys are under two miles. For most of these short journeys, there may be a practical alternative to the car. By opting for the alternative, drivers will help to reduce congestion and pollution, and may even improve their physical and mental health.”

Reaction to the report

Darren Shirley, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “The message coming from motorists is clear: if they have public transport which was more reliable, cheaper, or in some cases just available they would rather use that than the car. The case for investing in sustainable transport and boosting rural public transport cannot be any clearer, with even car drivers wanting better public transport so they can move away from the car.”

Chief executive officer at Sustrans, Xavier Brice, said: “With the UK’s air pollution a daily headline, there has never been a more important time to shift short journeys away from cars towards healthy, clean alternatives such as getting around by foot or on bike. One in four car trips are under two miles – a distance that can be walked or cycled.

“The research by the RAC is a reminder to governments at all levels to take urgent action and prioritise the development of safe and high quality walking and cycling routes, alongside engagement programmes, to enable more people to walk and cycle.”

The research for the RAC Report on Motoring was conducted by Quadrangle customer consultancy using an online survey of 1,808 motorists who hold a full, current driving licence, drive at least once a month and who have a motor vehicle in their household. The research was carried out from 2-18 May 2018.

The RAC Report on Motoring 2018 is available by clicking here 

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