Back in November last year, the media switched on briefly to the big news that, for the first time since the 1973 oil crisis, car use in the UK was decreasing. 2008 was the first year to show a decrease, and, as the Times reported, “Traffic declined again in 2009 and 2010, but rose very slightly last year.”
The theory of ‘peak car’ has been around almost as long as the car has, and previous blips have been followed by further seemingly inexorable rises in volumes of traffic. It would be easy to put the recent blip down to the recession, and expect the volume of traffic to rise once our economic fortunes have turned. The DfT still expects traffic to increase by 44% in the next twenty-two years. But there is good evidence that the trend is not a very recent one, nor one that can be blamed on the recession. While total car use has only just started to fall, that is partly because the population is growing. The miles driven per person has been static or falling for a lot longer. The BBC reports an analysis that “analysed government data for Britain between 1995 and 2007, purposefully stopping at that point to exclude the effects of the recession” and which found that the number of miles driven per person nationally has been static since 2002. As the New Scientist reported, the picture is a complex one and is part of a global trend, which began in Japan and the US. In the UK, analysis of the statistics shows that while women are driving slightly more, men are driving a lot less; rural driving is still increasing while in London car use has been falling for over twenty years; and young people are driving a lot less, but older people are driving slightly more.
Overall, though, the effect is clear, “the distance travelled per person has fallen every year since 2005 and is now 6% lower than a decade ago. The distance travelled by car peaked in 2006 and has fallen by 8% in a decade.”
For someone like myself, who daily sets out on a bicycle to share the congested, polluted streets of Leeds with a sizable minority of careless, reckless, and downright dangerous car drivers, the news that car use is falling was very welcome, and I set out to investigate when Leeds might start to see the benefit of this. Leeds is still the car-sick self-proclaimed “motorway city of the 70s”, with a higher rate of private car use than any comparable city in England, except for even more car-sick Bradford. As a result, it’s also the second most dangerous (also after Bradford) for cyclists, with the risk of being killed or seriously injured being double that in Manchester or Liverpool, four times more dangerous than Hull and eight times more dangerous than York.
So I looked up the figures, and here they are…
Yes, that’s correct. Car use in Leeds peaked in 2005, eight years ago, and fell by 7% from 2005 to 2011. It fell sooner, and faster, than the national average. Leeds, the motorway city of the 70s, for so long behind the times in its transport policy, is ahead of the curve in terms of ‘peak car’. Perhaps help is at hand for Leeds ‘Road Safety’ team, who have been unable to reduce the number of pedestrian casualties on the roads since 2004 and who have seen a 60% rise in cyclist casualties since 2001. Their newly drafted 2013 strategy promises more of the same failed measures, so perhaps a reduction in car traffic will help meet their targets. And perhaps some of the road space no longer needed by private motor vehicles can be given over to safe, convenient routes for active travel, i.e. walking and cycling.
Cyclists in Leeds have repeatedly been told that real, substantial, improvements to the highways to make cycling more popular and less dangerous are not possible because the road capacity cannot be reduced. Reducing capacity for private cars would increase congestion, according to the council, which they say is damaging to the economy. A cyclists’ deputation to the Council was fobbed off with the conclusion that they needed to “maintain a balance of provision for all road users.” The Chief Executive of the Council, Tom Riordan, recently wrote to a cycle campaigner to defend the £100M ring road extension with the argument that, “to ensure that our economy is strong we have the right balance in transport connectivity.” But now there is less demand for driving than there was ten years ago, and more demand for cycling, so the balance is shifting, and the council must surely act to reallocate road space for active travel. Quality cycle infrastructure, and better pedestrian facilities, are needed to address the city’s appalling road safety record, and to make Leeds a more pleasant city in which to live, work, eat, shop, walk, and cycle.