The five-day-a-week commute could be over – yet more drivers than ever say they’d struggle without a car

The five-day-a-week commute could be over – yet more drivers than ever say they’d struggle without a car
The typical Monday-to-Friday commute may be gone for good as a result of the pandemic with motorists expecting to drive to workplaces on average three days a week as hybrid and home working become the norm, new RAC research has found.1

The striking findings from the latest RAC Report on Motoring – the most comprehensive study of drivers’ views in the UK – show that while 49% of drivers commuted five days a week before the pandemic, just 32% expect to in the future.

In addition, three-in-10 drivers (30%) now expect to commute between one and four days a week with the average number of commuting days in future standing at three per week, down from four before Covid-19 hit.

What’s more, a fifth of drivers (19%) expect to give up the commute by car altogether by switching to permanent home working; in contrast, just 7% of drivers said they worked from home prior to the pandemic.

Meanwhile an identical 12% of drivers who used to commute via other means – bus, train, tube, walk or bike – before the pandemic say they’ll continue to do so in the future.

How often is the car used for different types of trips?

CommutingVisiting family and friendsGrocery / other essential shoppingTransporting children2
Use a car for every trip61%43%50%35%
Use a car for most trips20%33%31%23%
Occasionally use a car11%22%16%23%
Walk, cycle or use another form of transport for trips7%1%2%8%

Yet while the pandemic looks likely to cause major, long-term shifts in commuting patterns, the importance drivers place on having access to a car combined with the unappealing nature of public transport mean that the role of the car looks likely to rise still further, as the country finds ways of living with the coronavirus.

An enormous 82% of drivers this year said they would struggle without a car, the highest proportion recorded by the RAC since 2006, up from 79% last year and 74% in 2019.

Drivers in rural areas are much more likely to say they are car-dependent (87% of drivers, compared to a still significant 77% of town and city dwellers).

Regional differences are also pronounced with drivers in the West Midlands, Yorkshire and the North East of England more likely than average to say they depend on their vehicles.3 What’s more, one-in-five drivers (20%) expect to use their cars more as a result of the pandemic with the bulk (87%) expecting to do so for leisure purposes.

The RAC’s figures also suggest that negative attitudes towards public transport among drivers might be hardening.

For the second year running fewer than half of drivers (46%) said they would use their cars less even if public transport was improved (compared to 59% just three years ago), while an almost identical proportion (45%) said they expect to use public transport less in the future as a direct result of the pandemic. And just a fifth (22%) say they see public transport as an attractive alternative to taking the car.

Covid aside, the RAC Report on Motoring’s findings also confirm just why the car remains the mode of choice for so many drivers over any alternatives. For example, when it comes to visiting or caring for friends and family, 68% said the distance they have to travel is too far to go on foot or by bike, 57% said the car is quicker and over half (53%) said there are no feasible public transport options for them.

For those grocery shopping, 78% said they had too much to carry and so relied on a car, half (49%) said the distance to reach the shops was too far to walk or cycle while four-in-10 said there was no realistic public transport option.

RAC data insight spokesman Rod Dennis said: “These figures paint a picture of how car use is likely to change as a direct result of the pandemic, with a reduction in the number of days a week drivers commute by car being one of the most striking findings.

Many drivers clearly expect that ‘hybrid working’ will become the norm which could have a profound effect on the overall volume of vehicles on the roads during the week – although whether it signals an end to congestion during peak hours is another matter.

“It’s also clear just how important the car is to so many people, a relationship that appears to have strengthened due to Covid-19. A greater proportion of drivers than ever say they’d find it hard to live without one, and when looking at the reasons why people drive over walking, cycling or taking public transport, it’s perhaps obvious why.

"In so many cases, the car is faster, more reliable and is really the only feasible option for the sorts of distances people travel, whether that’s to the local supermarket a few miles away or to see friends and family on the other side of the country.

“But perhaps what is one of the starkest findings from our report is around attitudes towards public transport. If the challenge faced by policymakers in getting drivers out of their cars before the pandemic was akin to trekking up a steep hill, our research suggests they now have a veritable mountain to climb.

"Just a fifth of drivers see public transport as an attractive alternative to driving and less than half say they would use their cars less even if public was improved. What’s more, most drivers say the pandemic has made them more wary of using public transport in the future.”

RAC findings show how future car use could change

What do the findings from the Report on Motoring suggest might change in the future?

Commuting trends look likely to shift – but it’s doesn’t mean congestion is over
Overall, it appears drivers will spend fewer days each week behind the wheel to get to and from workplaces, which could lead to an overall reduction in the numbers of cars used for commuting. But that doesn’t mean rush hour congestion will end, especially if drivers tend to commute on the same days each week.

The car is vital for leisure journeys
The majority of drivers don’t expect how much they use their cars to change in the future, suggesting that – if many are commuting less by car – those drivers will use their cars for other purposes. And of the 20% who expect to drive more as we come through the pandemic, 87% say it’s because they’ll be using them for leisure purposes.

UK staycations – or EU road trips?
The car is clearly vital for sustaining people’s lifestyles, and 2021 showed just how popular UK staycations were given that international travel was so restricted. Only time will tell whether drivers are keen to maintain these sorts of breaks in the future or seek sunnier, warmer climes if they’re able to. Those that do go abroad may see the car as a more viable form of transport than they did in the past if they’re concerned about airborne infections.

Efforts to market public transport to drivers will need to redouble
If a good proportion of drivers found public transport an unattractive alternative to the car before the pandemic, if anything these attitudes have now hardened. Drivers simply won’t accept shoddy, expensive, dirty public transport. So, it’s clear that public transport requires serious investment if policymakers are serious about getting drivers out of their cars.

Cycling and walking should be made as attractive as possible for shorter journeys
While the car is clearly seen by many people as crucial for certain trips and especially for longer ones. But policymakers should ensure progress that was made during the pandemic in getting more people to use active modes of travel isn’t lost and should aim to make alternatives to driving an attractive option for shorter trips.

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1.The RAC Report on Motoring 2021 is based on a large-scale online survey carried out by Online95 on behalf of the RAC. In total, Online95 interviewed 2,652 UK motorists (i.e. those who hold a full, current UK driving licence, drive at least once a month and have a motor vehicle in their household). Figures are nationally representative. The survey was conducted from 3-23 May 2021, with the questionnaire taking around 30 minutes to complete.
2. Figures rebased, so percentages are only of those who ever transport children
3. 2021 figures – average 82%; West Midlands 87%; Yorkshire and Humber 86%; North East England 86%

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