The Car in British Society

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Royal Automobile Club Foundation Cars are an integral part of the way we live. Most of our journeys are by car. Over three-quarters of households have at least one car.

Seventy per cent of adults have driving licenses. The present level of car ownership has developed over the last fifty years. Cars have brought enormous advantages to people and the economy.

They have increased the choices that people have about where they live, work, are educated and spend their leisure time. In particular, the growth in car ownership has gone hand in hand with the widening of opportunities for women.

The highest growth in ownership has been seen in households in the lowest income group. And cars are an important form of transport even for families who do not own one.

The expansion of car numbers has been accompanied by changes in land use – increasingly dispersed patterns of settlement and employment, the spread of out of town shopping centers, and the concentration of public services such as hospitals.

These changes have made owning a car a necessity for many because such scattered development is hard for public transport to serve. The growth in car ownership has had no encouragement from government – central or local. Quite the reverse: road building has been cut well below the level of demand; parking has become more difficult and costly in most places; and the cost of running a car (as opposed to buying one) has risen not least because of the price of fuel and the tax levied on it.

The attitudes of the authorities in part reflects their appreciation that the unrestrained use of motor vehicles, especially in urban areas, produces real public disadvantages in terms of congestion and pollution.

Particularly over the last ten years, Government has supported measures discouraging car use in favour of walking, cycling and public transport. [It has legislated for traffic reduction targets in local areas]. Such measures have had some success in eradicating marginal car journeys. But more radical measures to reduce congestion and change driver behaviour through pricing schemes have found no popular support and have in effect been abandoned, the exception being the small area in central London that is uniquely well served by public transport.

It is surprising that such radical policies to fundamentally change the way people live their lives should have been embarked on with so little research into the factors that lead people to own and use cars: what might persuade them to change their behaviour; and what the costs of transition might be.

To stimulate thinking on these complex and critical issues the Royal Automobile Club Foundation published in 1995 a report on ‘Car Dependence’. Since then, despite Government policies to switch investment into public transport and to encourage its use, the growth in car numbers has continued unchecked: there are seven million more cars now than there were then, and the Government’s forecasts predict future increases.

The present report by an independent research team from University College London, Imperial College London and the University of Oxford investigates the changes that have occurred since the 1995 report.

It studies attitudes towards cars, and the place of the car in today’s society. It looks too at the social and economic consequences of using more coercive methods to change behaviour. Neither the authors nor the Foundation would claim this report is the last word on the subject of cars and society. But we hope it will stimulate further work and serious discussion on a subject seriously neglected, but central to future transport policy.

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