How can cities stop car being king?

Cutting down on the number of commuters using cars for short journeys will be key

This week the Government published the first part of its clear air plan, with a particular focus on reducing roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations (a second instalment targeting zero emissions for all road vehicles is due next year). The Government’s pledge to ban all petrol and diesel cars by 2040 gained media headlines, but the plan also set out measures to address congestion pinch points on the roads, and to encourage greater use of public transport.

As such, the central issue for local government will be reducing car usage and its negative impact on air quality. But what is the relationship between car usage, other methods of transport and commuting patterns – and how does this play out across the country?

Analysis of the ONS data on distances and methods of transport chosen to travel to work in England and Wales shows that Milton Keynes is the car-use capital, with more than two thirds of commuters driving to work, reflecting the fact that the city was designed around car usage. Out of major cities (excluding London, which is an outlier because of its extensive public transport system), Birmingham has the highest car use, with 62 per cent of commuters driving to work. The lowest car commuting city is Brighton with only 39 per cent of commuters driving to work, 19 per cent using public transport and 23 per cent walking or cycling to work.Share of commuters driving to work (2011)

In trying to reduce car-use, targeting short journeys is likely to be more successful than longer ones. The ONS data shows that in most cities, those commuting less than 5 kilometres distance still choose their car as their main method of transport in most cities. In Hull, for example, 54 per cent of people live less than 5 kilometres from their workplace, but 48 per cent of those take their car to go to work. In Cambridge, despite being the most popular place for cycling commuters, more than a third of those living in a 5 kilometres area still drive to work.

Table showing transport choices of commuters in cities who live 2km from their workplaces

Looking even closer, it’s clear that only a very small share of commuters in cities who live 2km from their workplaces choose alternative forms of transport to driving. This trend is particularly strong in smaller cities such as Blackburn and Swansea, but is also an issue in major cities, where we might expect public transport provision to be more extensive. In Birmingham, for example, only 9 per cent of commuters living 2km away from work take public transport, while 44 per cent drive. In Bristol and Leeds, over a third of commuters in this group travel by car to work.

Share of commuters driving

For most people, these distances could easily be walked or cycled, and in many cases using public transport would make their journeys faster. So how could cities begin to encourage people to make the switch from car use to alternatives for such short distances?

Improving public transport, by making it more attractive and reliable, is an obvious first step towards reducing private vehicle usage. In particular, targeting short car journeys that could easily be walked or cycled should be on top of the list for cities.

Introducing a congestion charge, modelled on London’s, should also be a consideration for the most congested cities. Not only would such a charge help to cut down car-use, it could also generate revenue to improve public transport, especially in less well-connected parts of cities (this was highlighted by the Centre as a priority for Greater Manchester’s mayor.

Of course different places will face different challenges. A clean air strategy in Cambridge, one of the most congested cities in the UK despite the popularity of cycling, won’t be the same as in Milton Keynes, where streets were built for expanding car usage. But it’s clear that for most cities, cutting down on car usage in the coming years and improving public transport should be important priorities.

Listen to our recent podcast looking at ways to resolve the air pollution crisis in our cities, featuring Caroline Russell from the Green Party and Andrea Lee from Client Earth.


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Robin Spragg
18 January 2018 09:56

Considering the amount of space taken up by moving and parked cars, I think a Workplace Parking Levy should be mandatory in larger cities


1 September 2017 12:18

South Manchester, where I live, is a horrific nest of congested roads and yet public transport provision is almost nil. Contrast to Munich, where I lived last year, where at approximately the same distance from the city centre, there was a tram stop right outside my front door *plus* two bus stops, *plus* a metro station within ten minutes' walk. Service density at rush hour was trams every ten minutes and trains every four. Plus, the whole public transit network was unified under a single provider, and I could buy a monthly pass for the *entire* network for less than the cost of my current two-stations-only season ticket on the UK railway, which runs a measly four trains an hour, and not equally spaced. If you want people to use public transport you need to increase service density so that you don't have to plan your journey ahead, you need full coverage to get people all the way to their destination with minimal modal changes, and you need a unified payment infrastructure so that people don't have to buy multiple fares. Honestly, I suspect that autonomous electric rideshare services will kill a lot of public transit infrastructure before we get anywhere close to that outside the capital.


Peter C.
5 June 2018 16:41

I could not agree more with you. This country is a joke as far as public transport is concerned. Far too expensive and not in the right places. There is too much money spent in London - billions of pounds, to look after the already over subsidised Capital. It is about time that the money generated in cities like Manchester stayed in Manchester, instead of going to the fat cat government to dole out to themselves and undemocratic organisations like the House of Lords. The problem is nothing to do with car ownership, which most sensible people aspire to, but excessive taxation - which is all the government can think of. it is ‘our’ money, and the criminal governments which we have in this country, of whatever hue, should not be able to get hold of it to waste. Which is what happens to most of it!


Peter harding
20 August 2017 17:31

If public transport was made cheaper and therefore more competitive with car use then perhaps more people would use it. A congestion charge could be used to raise money to subsidise public transport for commuters.


Visit Camberwell
6 August 2017 14:37

There's a lot of confusion between which car journeys are theoretically easier and most intuitive to substitute with cycling/PT, and how best to "target" overall reduction. If you already own a car, it will take a formidable array of carrots and sticks to persuade away from car use, especially in areas dominated by pollution and car storage (a negatively reinforcing circle). So, once you own a car, it's essentially too late for most alternatives to compete. For that reason, you needed to reduce car ownership by disincentivizing car purchase. The main reason people buy cars is for longer, inter-city trips where huge savings can often be made per journey, compared to rail and bus, and there is a perception it is more convenient. That's why the only effective approach is to discourage long car trips, by making it harder/more expensive or anti-social, to store cars, especially kerbside.

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