Busy roads, slower speeds, extra taxes – but we'll carry on driving

Britain is more dependent than ever on cars, according to a study published today. Even the poorest families are increasingly reliant on them, and when motoring costs rise they prefer to sacrifice other household spending rather than stop driving.

The number of cars has grown seven times faster than the population. There are 29.6 million cars, up 30 per cent from a decade ago. Over the same period the population has grown by 4 per cent to 60.6 million.

The RAC Foundation commissioned a team of academics from Oxford University, Imperial College and University College London to investigate how reliant Britons were on their cars. They found that people opted for them even for journeys that could easily be walked or cycled and were used for 78 per cent of journeys of two to three miles. Just over three quarters of homes had a car and ownership had grown fastest among the poorest fifth of households, up from 35 per cent in 2000 to 49 per cent in 2006.

The foundation said that government policies purporting to reduce car use — such as raising fuel duty and road tax — could increase social exclusion by penalising poor families. The researchers found a significant fall in the number of homes within easy walking distance of a grocer or chemist.

In addition to analysing Department for Transport data, the team gathered evidence from focus groups and found scepticism about the potential for replacing car trips with public transport. One 75-year-old participant said: “You can get to town [by bus] all right, but Sainsbury’s is a mile and a half that way, Tesco’s is a mile and half the other way. There’s no supermarket in the centre of town.

Professor Stephen Glaister, the foundation’s director, said: “More than four out of five people say they would find it difficult to use their cars less. It is a myth to claim public transport is the magic answer. The Government’s emphasis on high-speed rail ignores the reality of most people’s lives."

“The car is the bedrock of our society and our economy. It has democratised this country. There is no question of getting rid of cars. Instead we must change the type of cars we use — smaller, lighter, more fuel-efficient models with less CO2 emissions.”

Click here to open the original Times story in a new window