Moving on: exploring ways to cut car use

  • Climate and sustainability

Rosie Allen, Policy Adviser, Green Alliance 

Here, Rosie Allen of Green Alliance looks at some of the advantages of reducing car use in the UK, especially focusing on the environmental benefits.  Rosie explores both the challenges and the opportunities in enabling behavioural change in terms of transport use, including modelling different policy options.

Despite the recent progress in the transition to electrify the UK’s vehicle fleet, analysis shows that, for transport to cut enough emissions to be on track for net zero, the number of car journeys people make has to fall. In fact, we found that if Scotland’s ambition to reduce car travel by 20 per cent by 2030 was matched across the UK, it would cover 97 per cent of the transport emissions reductions needed by 2032. The potential of this is huge. Moving away from cars to other more sustainable modes would plug the current ‘policy gap’ for transport emissions.

Encouraging this change would also have many wider benefits beyond just reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It will improve the nation’s health, potentially saving the NHS £2.5 billion a year. It would enhance mobility for the 46 per cent of low income households that have no access to a car. In freeing up our clogged roads, it would save the economy around £8 billion a year. And reducing air pollution would prevent an estimated 36,000 early deaths every year.

How people feel about driving less

After the Covid-19 pandemic, car use recovered faster than public transport and average vehicle occupancy simultaneously decreased as people became less keen to travel alongside others. As public attitudes are a major factor in transport policy, Green Alliance commissioned a public poll and focus groups to understand the appetite for driving less.

The biggest issues, highlighted by our research, were that people are attached to their cars and are dissatisfied with the state of public transport. They told us they drive because it is convenient, a habit and also because it can be cheaper. They see cars as accessible and reliable. For more people to leave their cars at home, they want more public transport, cycling, wheeling and walking infrastructure . This is supported by the recent example of Manchester, where reducing bus fares has increased bus use by ten per cent.

The rise in the cost of living is changing what people think about travel. A third of those we polled thought higher fuel prices would alter the way they commute in the long term. The recent increase in prices has put a spotlight on inequities in access to transport that already existed. Almost a quarter of UK households do not own a vehicle, and those on lower incomes are the least likely to. Those experiencing transport poverty and without a private vehicle are more likely to rely on buses. So, in deciding transport policy, it will be important to consider whether it improves accessibility to more sustainable travel options.

Policy can encourage more sustainable transport

Policies that cut car use and encourage the switch to greener choices include (but are not limited to) lowering speed limits; increasing the cost of driving with road pricing and congestion and parking charges; increasing the appeal of alternatives, like making public transport cheaper, faster or more frequent; or encouraging teleworking, car club use or higher average vehicle occupancy.

Issues that arise from these measures need balancing and ironing out. For instance, making driving more expensive will deter some people from making some journeys, but is likely to hit those on the lowest incomes hardest. Yet, road pricing is one way to replace the revenue lost as we move to electric vehicles. The Treasury is predicted to lose up to £28 billion annually from lost road taxes and fuel duty. We suggest a new independent commission to recommend appropriate and fair road pricing.

Revamping bus and rail services across the UK will be costly for Department for Transport at a time when real term departmental cuts are being made. To afford it, any revenue from driving charges should be directly invested in the infrastructure for public transport, walking and cycling. A lot of these measures need to be implemented locally so local authorities will have to be given more data, funding and powers to make it work.

Modelling the options

Policies have varying levels of public acceptability, impact and cost, so we developed a model with academics at Cardiff University to understand better what the impact of different policies might be. Working with Dr Crispin Cooper and Paul Haggar, at Cardiff, we used 2019 data and academic literature to determine how people might change their travel behaviour in response to any policy, by modelling different policy mix scenarios.

All the scenarios we explored aimed for a 25 per cent reduction in annual car miles. Each came with trade-offs of course. For example, we found that focusing on urban areas could generate more revenue for the government more equitably, with higher populations, and more scope to discourage driving (such as through road pricing) where there are more accessible alternatives to car travel and more lower income households without a car. After considering the impact of a number of extreme scenarios – all urban, all rural, all local, all national –  we were able to understand how a more balanced mix of measures would play out.

Our balanced approach took into account public acceptability, revenue generation and what an equitable mix of urban and rural measures could look like. But this was just one set of possibilities we fed into the model. Different mixes could be explored for different circumstances, using this model, to envisage locally and nationally how we can move the UK to a greener transport future.

Photo Credit: Marc Kleen on Unsplash

About the author

Rosie Allen joined Green Alliance, (an independent environment think tank and charity) as a policy adviser in September 2022. Prior to this, she worked as a civil servant: at Ofgem on price cap policy and at the Department of Health on maternity and neonatal policy. She has an LLB in Politics, Philosophy and Law from King’s College London.

Rosie’s piece draws on the Moving On report which was authored by Rosie alongside Helena Bennett from Green Alliance, and Crispin Cooper and Paul Haggar from Cardiff University.