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Car dependency: how Government policy is leaving millions behind

Former campaigner's picture

Earlier in the month, the Department for Transport published a new analysis of how we use the country’s roads. The image that emerges is of continuing and deepening dependence on cars. The Government is actively supporting this through public spending and taxation policies. But the negative impacts are not being equally felt across society, with some groups being hit much harder than others. The Government still has the opportunity to support cleaner and more equitable transport network, but time is very tight. 

The big picture from the new DfT analysis is more vehicles driving more miles on more roads. In 2014, 64 per cent of all trips (including commuting, shopping, school and leisure travel) were made by car, as either a driver or passenger. Cars accounted for 79 per cent of all vehicle miles, compared with just 44 per cent in 1949. Around 4,600km of new road have been built since 2005, with further major schemes in the pipeline. While car use has not increased exponentially as successive Governments have predicted, overall usage and ownership has increased in step with the growing population. 

We know this reliance on cars is killing us - around 40,000 people die prematurely each year because of air pollution, primarily caused by diesel engines. This hits some groups much harder than others, with those in poorer areas also most likely to suffer poor air quality. The Government is under sustained pressure over the speed of its response. It is accused of treating air pollution as a local problem that cleaner engines and electric cars will eventually make disappear, rather than as a direct outcome of policies that promote road building, keep the cost of motoring low and invest little in alternatives. 

The pre-eminence given to cars within transport policy has other negative impacts on our health. We simply do not get enough exercise for example, with many adults daily activity consisting of not much more than walking between their front door, the car and their desk. Changing work and leisure habits mean 43 per cent of Britons aged 16 and 24 spend six or more hours every weekday sitting down. With walking on the decrease and cycling levels flat, there is a pressing need for initiatives that help make our journeys more active. The Government has recognised as much in its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, but while the draft talks a good fight it’s supported by only £300m of investment over five years. This is akin to trying to do a weekly shop for £5 – you can write a list of all the things you need, but your budget will always be ten-times too small to afford them. Support for buses continues its steep decline with cash-strapped local authorities increasingly removing all support, and the £500m announced in last year’s Spending Review for sustainable transport has been lumped into the local growth fund and is not ring-fenced. 

Meanwhile, new car sales are at a seventeen-year high, petrol prices deliberately held at a 19 year low, and the Government is working on its second five-year strategy for the strategic road network, promising billions more for new tarmac. 

This is not an abstract frustration. These policies are harming our health and environment while marginalising those least likely to have access to a car - young people, the over 65s, disabled people and households on low incomes. The DfT statistics reveal that a third of women don't hold a driving licence, younger women (aged between 17 and 20) and older people drive much less than the average and also risk losing out because they are particularly heavy bus users. The percentage of young people passing their driving test has fallen overall since 2007/08, and continues to decline for young women. Only half of households in the lowest income quintile have access to a car. Allowing car-dependency to grow makes life more difficult for all these groups. 

We badly need more balanced transport policies which support all sections of society and offer choice in how we get around. There are some obvious places to start – properly funded infrastructure improvements to encourage cycling and walking, ring-fencing funds earmarked for sustainable transport, and initiatives to ensuring local authorities aren’t forced to cut socially important bus services. But there also needs to be a long term change in the way the Government considers transport objectives. Public health, the environment and social equity are not just boxes to tick after economic considerations. Rather, they are the reason transport policy matters in the first place.