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A changing picture?

There is now evidence that our attitudes and behaviours towards car usage are changing and a subtle but fundamental shift in our car-dependency is now taking place.

Taking Britain's motorists as a whole, our research shows our use of cars going up over 20 years. There are more cars on the road. There are more drivers. Although we make shorter journeys, we do more of them.

But individually a different picture emerges.

The RAC Report on Motoring uses two key attitudinal measures of our car-dependence and both show significant changes across 20 years.

The most dramatic has been in our attitudes to public transport. Today, 62% of us say 'I would use my car less if public transport was better'.

That, as the chart below shows, is a complete turn around from twenty years ago, when 70% of us said we would not.

The other change is that in 1988, 84% of us agreed 'I would find it very difficult to adjust my lifestyle to being without a car'; in 2008, it's now fallen to 73%.

  1988 2008
  Agree    Disagree    Agree    Disagree
I would use my car less if public transport was better 23% 70% 62% 17%
I would find it very difficult to adjust my lifestyle to being without a car 84% 12% 73% 12%

The evidence suggests that our attitudes have only really started to change in the last few years.

Two years ago, the number of motorists saying they'd find it difficult to adjust their lifestyle to not having a car stood at 87%; in 2007 it fell to 81% and this year it's down to 73%.

Which means the one in six motorists who, just two years ago, said they'd find it very difficult to adjust no longer say that.

The tipping point was 2004, when the number of motorists saying they'd use their car less if public transport was better passed 50% for the first time.

Crucially these changes in attitudes are starting to translate to actions.

  • We're starting to use our cars less than 20 years ago. In 1998, we drove an average of 10,200 miles a year. That's down to 9,010 miles a year - a drop of around 10%.
  • Compared with 20 years ago, the proportion of us who drive more than 12,000 miles a year has fallen from 26% to 15%.
  • Those of us who drive less than 6,000 miles has increased from 32% to 43%.

And, not only has the amount we each drive fallen by about 10% over 20 years, but this year we're driving a little less than we did last year.

The wider picture is also changing. Across 20 years, there's been a major increase in motorists using public transport not instead of, but alongside our cars.

* Since 1988, the number of motorists who also use the train or tube has increased by a third; and, for buses and trams, the number has increased by a half.

Usage of modes of transport   2008   1988  
Public bus / train 62% 35%
Train / tube 56% 42%

All this points towards a slow, subtle but still fundamental shift in our car-dependency.

Two changes are happening together:

  • Firstly, we are starting to use public transport more, where it is a feasible alternative, especially for longer journeys
  • Secondly, we are using our cars more for shorter more 'personal' journeys and commuting.

The key to making it work is the quality, availability and integration of public transport.

RAC calls for:

  • A recognition that there will always be some reliance on the car, particularly in non-urban locations where access to public transport is limited. Different approaches will therefore be required to fit urban and rural locations.
  • The Government needs to provide viable transport alternatives to the car, rather than simply penalising the motorist.
  • Upfront investment to provide a safe, affordable and reliable public transport system that can help incentivise motorists out of their cars.

Our views on the future

Is it sustainable