Car usage and the changing face of the commute

As a connector of people, places and things, transport is essential to building strong and inclusive communities and driving economic growth. As the UK’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, it also plays a critical role in reducing the impact of the impending climate crisis.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia estimated national lockdowns reduced global carbon emissions by 2.4 billion tonnes in 2020. A proportion of this reduction can be credited to a mass move to home working, which diminished commuter emissions overnight. There was an uplift in walking and cycling for shorter journeys. Reduced congestion improved air quality and less pollutants saw wildlife flourish.

The pandemic revealed the shocking impact our mobility choices have on the environment and the scope and scale of the benefits when we change them. As we move toward something more akin to ‘business as usual’ is there any hope of sustaining those positive behaviours long term?

A top-down approach with renewed focus from the government and environmentally conscious employers reveals an appetite to do so. The need to ‘build back better, greener, faster’ may be ringing in our ears but accessibility to new technologies or limitless funding for sustainability projects cannot transform commuter behaviour alone.

Our love affair with the car especially has been both liberating and problematic. We look some of the factors that helped shape commuter behaviours in the past and examine what catalysts could spark sustainable mobility going forward.

The car is still king

Trusty steed. Status symbol. Hobby horse. Polluter. A means of freedom. An expensive tie.

To our society, the car is many things but its prevalence is without question. Increasing levels of personal wealth and more recently, the accessibility of car financing options has been a big driver of private car ownership since the 1970’s.

A report from the RAC revealed there were 19 million car owners in 1971, increasing to 31 million in 2008. In the UK, 81% of us have access to a car. The car is so common place the lack of one is more notable than its presence. And many of us aren’t content with one alone.

Two car households now outnumber families with 2 children in the UK, standing at 5.1 million and 3.2 million respectively. When surveyed about the use of their second vehicle, 4 in 10 cited travelling to work as the main reason for its purchase. This twentieth century innovation may have brought us unprecedented levels of automobility but we were still bound by the commute.

Aside from wealth, urban sprawl and the decentralisation of our cities are also partly to blame for our increasing reliance on cars. As suburbs continued to grow, so did the distances commuters had to travel. These longer journeys naturally favoured car ownership over public transport which limited commuters to where and when they could travel to work.

The 2019 Government Office for Science report blames a car centric culture for the decline in public transport use. Fewer people using public transport meant less investment. Less investment led to reduced

services. This shift disproportionately affected women, young people and the elderly who did (and still do) rely on these services more heavily.

Limited public transport services, particularly in rural communities, have exacerbated spatial inequality and increased dependence on private car ownership in these areas. The same report cites 87% of trips are made by car or van in rural localities, compared to 78% in urban areas.

The above examples demonstrate how transport modes are interrelated and the increased use of one naturally results in the reduced use of another. Even for journeys less than 2 miles, 60% will be made by car despite being easily walked or cycled. It has become second nature to jump in the car, much to the detriment of the environment and our own health.

Despite efforts by successive governments to support modal shift, many of our travel behaviours have become embedded over generations and the convenience of the car remains ingrained in our collective psyche. This, coupled with the significant investment in road infrastructure, has made car dependence difficult to reverse – but not impossible.


of people have access to a car.


of journeys are made by bike in the UK.


of trips are made by car in rural areas.


of UK households – 5.1 million – have a second car.

A blueprint for change?

Amsterdam is renowned the world over in its status as a mobility leader but this wasn’t always the case. In the 1960s, the car was hailed as the ‘transport of the future’ and much of the city was knocked down to accommodate motorised traffic.

Sadly, this resulted in a huge spike in traffic fatalities which galvanised the city’s residents to demand change. Through petition and protest, they successfully reclaimed the streets for the cyclist and pedestrian. Dutch politicians took note, shifting transport policies to make it quicker, easier and safer to travel by bike.

Over the last 50 years, Amsterdam has transformed into the active travel pioneer we recognise today. The Netherlands has 22,000 miles of cycle paths and more than a quarter of all trips are made by bike. This is in stark contrast to the 2% of bike journeys in the UK, despite having a cycle path network of over 16,000 miles. Even when the infrastructure exists, it seems the car still prevails.

Yet change is afoot, albeit gradually. This ‘if you build it, they will come’ mentality has proved effective in London, where 9% of car commuters have switched to other forms of transport over the last decade. Today, London is famously difficult to navigate for car users making other forms of transport the more efficient choice – this was not by accident, but by design.

The Deputy Mayor for Transport, Isabel Dedring, said:

People in London have a lot of options and there’s been huge growth across all modes. There’s been a massive increase in investment in public transport.
Isabel Dedring, Deputy Mayor for Transport

And she’s not wrong. London’s transport budget was an estimated at £11 billion in 2019, between 20 and 30% of the UK’s total transport budget.

These budget increases have allowed for the development of public transport improvements, integrated payment systems and shared mobility infrastructure that’s the envy of the world. However, the persuasive power of punitive measure such as congestions charges, emissions-based parking fees and the reallocation of space to public transport can’t be overlooked.

It appears adopting a carrot and stick approach is the most effective method of encouraging behaviour change. This can be seen in the roll out of initiatives across the country, such as Bristol’s Clean Air Zone (CAZ) which launches in October 2021.

The CAZ proposals would charge polluting cars and vans £9 a day but promise an improved public transport infrastructure and grants to help people switch to cleaner vehicles.

Despite estimates that 71% of vehicles using the zone are already compliant and would face no charge, the plans have been met with controversy. Change can be challenging and whether it’s enough to encourage people to adopt alternative means of travelling to the city centre will be interesting to see.

Car use and commuting going forward

Employers have a huge role to play in shaping the future of the commute, and its associated emissions, going forward. The fear is that any progress we have made decarbonising the commute will be lost as people seek the solitude of their cars to drive alone.

The car itself isn’t the biggest threat to soaring commuter emissions but how we use them. Fuel efficiencies have led to a 5% decrease in car emissions since 1990 despite a 22% increase in car traffic. While progress is good, it isn’t enough – it’s the levels of traffic that need to be addressed.

Electric vehicles aren’t exactly common place on our roads yet but the Government’s 2030 ban on all new petrol and diesel cars has ensured they will be. Car clubs, lift sharing services, peer to peer lending and on demand ride hailing services like Uber are already reframing the way we think about car ownership.

This is reflected in younger generations being less car dependant, with many delaying or abstaining from getting a driving licence altogether. When a car is parked for over 95% of its lifetime, why would you burden yourself with the expense if you can access one when you need to by other means?

As organisations consider their response to the ‘working from home’ question, it’s their choices which ultimately change the face of our towns and cities. Andy Byford, TfL’s transport commissioner, has said bringing passengers back to London was “a matter of huge importance to keeping TfL going“.

Even a return of 80% of London’s commuters wouldn’t be enough to support existing funding models. Reduced budgets are a threat to

infrastructure and maintenance, which in turn affects service and reliability – and therefore the likelihood these services will meet the needs of the commuter.

Fiscal concerns aren’t the only threat to public transport and shared mobility (such as e-bikes and scooters) which could also see commuters revert back to driving alone. Safety concerns over cleanliness and proximity to other users must be addressed as employers solidify their remote working policies. Encouraging commuters to forgo driving to work alone is going to be critical in avoiding a car-led recovery.

There is cause for optimism however, with a wider cultural shift of recognition of climate change. 245 local authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that have declared a climate emergency, with 149 of them setting targets to reach zero emissions by 2030 or earlier. These targets cannot be achieved without decarbonising the commute, so it must be addressed.

The much-awaited Transport Decarbonisation plan from the Department for Transport is due to launch this Spring. In a document outlining their intentions the DfT noted “We are already exploring how we can use vehicles differently, such as through shared mobility. New technologies and business models may help facilitate modal shift, such as Mobility as a Service platforms. This will require behavioural changes and we will consider how government and others can support this shift through infrastructure and encouraging those forms of travel.”

Andy Byford, TfL’s transport commissioner, has said bringing passengers back to London was "a matter of huge importance to keeping TfL going".

End or evolution?

Former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced an ‘Acceleration Unit’ to speed up transport infrastructure projects and a £20 million “rural mobility fund” which will pilot on-demand transport for regions failed by traditional services. There’s a renewed onus on encouraging populations to make ‘smarter choices’ shaped by travel plans, cycling infrastructure and shared mobility.

The Deloitte report ‘The rise of mobility as a service’ examines an app called whim available to Helsinki residents that allows users to plan and pay for all their transport needs as and when they need. “The goal is to make it so convenient for users to get around that they opt to give up their personal vehicles for city commuting, not because they’re forced to, but because the alternative is more appealing”.

Autonomous vehicles are also a hot topic for futurists who expect private car ownership to go extinct. The development of new technologies, from the aforementioned driverless cars to Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platforms will all play a role in shaping our commute.

Whether the era of the car is over or it’s just evolving into something new, the way we choose to get around will continue to impact the world we live in. It’s up to us as a society, and as individuals, to be accountable for those choices.

Humans are famously self-interested and it’s these motivations which ultimately drive our behaviour. The quick, cheap or convenient travel choice will almost always come out on top. The challenge for mobility professionals is to ensure the quick, cheap or convenient choice is also the most sustainable.

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