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.
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.
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.
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.