Findings from 2021's comprehensive study of UK drivers' views

Personal mobility and the pandemic


The Covid-19 pandemic has strengthened the bond between British drivers and their cars, the 2021 Report on Motoring has found: now more than ever, drivers say they could not live without their vehicles, which highlights the central role the car will continue to play in so many people’s lives. This is despite the fact car usage levels fell sharply as a result of the lockdown measures imposed around the country over the past 18 months.

Looking to the post-pandemic future, it seems clear that hybrid working practices will lead to a permanent decline in the number of commuting journeys, although the findings suggest this reduction could be offset by a desire to make more leisure journeys at other times.

Meanwhile, it appears the coronavirus may have a lasting effect on the willingness of drivers to use public transport, with most saying they wouldn’t switch out of their cars even if services improved. Most drivers also say they enjoy driving.

Access to cars more important than ever

Only a small proportion of drivers (9%) think that having access to a vehicle has become less important as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Report has found. Almost a third (31%) believe vehicle access is ‘a lot more important’ than it was pre-pandemic, while a further 18% say it is ‘a little more important’ – and drivers in the 17-24 and 65-plus age groups are much more likely to say they feel the importance of having access to a car has increased. Today, drivers would find it harder than ever to cope without their cars: in 2021, 82% say they would find it difficult to adjust their lifestyle to being without a car – the highest level of agreement recorded on this issue in the history of the Report – a figure that rises to 87% for drivers who live in rural areas. In a similar vein, some 74% of drivers say they can’t imagine a day when they would no longer be able to drive their cars.

The reasons why the car remains the preferred option for many types of journeys varies depending on the purpose. For example, 71% say they use their car for commuting instead of alternatives because it’s quicker, with just over half (55%) saying there are no feasible public transport options. Meanwhile, for grocery shopping, the majority see the car as the most practical option – 78% use the car for most of these trips because of the amount they have to carry, while half (49%) tend to use the car as the distance they have to travel is too far to do on foot or by bike. And a fifth of drivers (20%) usually combine trips for shopping, commuting or dropping off and picking up children as they believe these are more practical by car.

While many drivers may be commuting less in 2021 – and perhaps in the future as well (see below) – cars appear to have become an even more appealing mobility option as a result of concerns about the alternatives.

Looking at public transport in particular, 60% of drivers disagree with the statement ‘I think public transport is an attractive alternative to taking the car’, while only 21% agree. Attitudes towards public transport tend to be more negative in the North West, East and South East of England, as well as in Scotland.

Meanwhile, a similar proportion (58%) agree that the pandemic has made them more wary of using buses, trains and trams in the future, given the potential infection risks. Notably, if the threat of coronavirus was removed, there would still be resistance to using public transport. Only 46% of drivers say they would use their cars less in non-coronavirus circumstances – even if the quality of public transport was better. This is a significantly lower proportion than in the years leading up to the pandemic, when agreement with this proposition consistently ran between 54% and 59%. Such a finding suggests that policymakers face a considerable challenge in encouraging greater use of buses and trains in the years ahead following the sharp falls in usage seen during the pandemic.

According to the Office of Rail and Road, the number of passenger rail journeys made in 2020-21 declined by 78% on the previous 12 months to 388 million. However, estimates from the Department for Transport (DfT) suggest that rail usage had recovered to around 45% of pre-pandemic levels by the end of May 2021, by which point a number of major lockdown restrictions in the UK had been relaxed.

Meanwhile, government figures suggest that the number of bus journeys made in Britain in the 12 months from March 2020 was at 40% of 2019 levels (49% in London).

Plans post-pandemic?

This year’s Report on Motoring has taken an in-depth look at the way drivers used different modes of transport prior to the arrival of Covid-19 in early 2020, as well as at how they predict this usage is likely to change after the pandemic.

A fifth (20%) say they expect to use their cars more in the future as a result of the pandemic, a figure which rockets to 42% among drivers aged between 17 and 24. In 87% of these cases, the reason for extra car usage is for leisure purposes, while half (53%) say they will also be more likely to use their cars for commuting to and from work.

While the number of people who work from home increased sharply during the pandemic as a result of lockdown restrictions and government guidance, there are signs that hybrid forms of working – where staff are expected to go into the workplace only a few days each week – could become a much more common practice in some sectors of the economy.

Research published in June 2021 by the Office for National Statistics found that 85% of individuals who were currently working from home wished to use this kind of hybrid approach on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, a quarter of employers (24%) said they intended to use increased levels of homeworking in the future.

The Report on Motoring shows that while 84% of drivers in employment said their main mode of transport to and from their place of work prior to the pandemic was their own car or a shared vehicle, this figure is expected to fall to 66% after the pandemic. This decline looks set to be caused almost entirely by a rise in working from home – indeed, 19% of drivers say they no longer expect to be travelling to their workplace after the pandemic.

The RAC’s research indicates that many employees believe they will indeed be taking a hybrid approach to attending their workplace in the wake of the pandemic: while half of employed motorists (49%) say they drove to work five days a week before the emergence of Covid-19, only 32% expect to do so in the future, pointing to a possible reduction in rush hour traffic in the future. Drivers in London think they will only commute two-and-a-half days each week on average after the pandemic.

Only a very small proportion of drivers – 5% – plan to get rid of a car in their household as a result of the pandemic or have indeed already done so.

Looking at planned post-pandemic public transport use – for all types of journeys, not just commuting – there seems likely to be a general decline in train and bus usage.

Prior to the pandemic, 16% of drivers used the national rail network at least once a month. After the pandemic, this figure is set to fall to 12% – although it should be noted that at present 18% of motorists remain unsure about how often they will travel by train in the future. In terms of bus travel, 21% of drivers made at least one bus journey a month in the year leading up to March 2020: this is expected to fall to 17% after the pandemic.

Words: Chris Torney; infographics: Rod Dennis

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