Stephen Frost, principal research fellow at IPPR argues that the prime minister's ‘plan for motorists’ is far from the transport strategy that most people want: one that best meets their needs, supports a good quality of life and contributes to making places better for people and nature.
The idea that cars will always dominate the way we travel has pervaded the UK for decades. It creates a vicious circle: people depend on their cars, therefore everything must be accessible by car, pushing other ways of getting around to the fringes regardless of the health, social, and environmental costs. This idea often goes unspoken, but since the summer it has been moved to the centre stage.
Having shaken off the ‘golden age of cycling’ rhetoric of recent Conservative prime ministers, our current PM has declared that the actions taken by local, regional and devolved governments to ‘curb car use’ are ‘against British values’. The UK’s transport minister says that: “this government wants to back motorists to travel how they want, where they want and when they want to”.
the recently announced ‘plan for driving’ is an election slogan masquerading as transport policy
In one way the government are right: we are increasingly dependent on our cars. The proportion of households in Britain without a car fell from 48 per cent in 1971 to 22 per cent in 2022. There are now over 32.2 million cars on Britain’s roads, up from 18 million in 1994. Despite all these cars being parked 96 per cent of the time, many are reliant on them for their daily activities – 81 per cent of British drivers say they would struggle to get by without a car.
Rather than being a genuine attempt to address the root causes of the challenges drivers face, the recently announced ‘plan for driving’ is an election slogan masquerading as transport policy. The UK government’s plan to make life easier for ‘hardworking families’ includes revising guidance around public consent for 20mph speed limits and low traffic neighbourhoods, a new parking app, making sure bus lanes only operate when necessary and, in a move seemingly targeting the voting conspiracy theorist, a pledge to stop local authorities using 15-minute cities to “police people’s lives”. The main piece of positive news for all road users is the government are at least going to try to fix some more potholes and tackle overrunning roadworks.
No one needs a plan that favours cars at the expense of other modes they rely on. They need a plan that works for all their journeys and can help them save money when times are tough
A short-term slogan that won't address people's real concerns
So where have the government gone wrong?
First, the UK government has mistaken ‘car owners’ as being defined exclusively as drivers. ‘Motorists’ are rarely just that, they are also pedestrians, sometimes cyclists, users of buses and trains, and occasionally to be found in a taxi. Yes, over six in 10 (65 per cent) trips in England in 2022 by those living in households with vehicle access involved a car or van – but almost three in 10 (29 per cent) were by walking or cycling. For non-drivers, or ‘other drivers’, in households with vehicle access over one-third (39 or 36 per cent) of trips were by walking or cycling. No one needs a plan that favours cars at the expense of other modes they rely on. They need a plan that works for all their journeys and can help them save money when times are tough.
If you’re on a low income and spending over one-fifth of your income on running a car, then car dependence doesn’t feel like something to celebrate
Second, the government are wrong to equate dependence on a car with freedom. During a cost of living crisis, cars can be far from liberating – particularly for those on low incomes. Despite being the least likely to have access to a car or van, still over two-thirds of those on the lowest incomes are having to find the money to keep a car running. When over half of British adults (56 per cent) say that living costs have risen in the last month, it is no wonder that 30 per cent of British adults are cutting back on non-essential journeys to save money. With more than one-quarter (28 per cent) of adults unable to afford an unexpected £850 expense, it should come as no surprise that over one in 10 British drivers (12 per cent) are putting off car repairs to save money, rising to over one-third (37 per cent) of 17–24 year olds. If you’re on a low income and spending over one-fifth of your income on running a car, then car dependence doesn’t feel like something to celebrate.
Finally, it is insensitive at best to mischaracterise schemes designed to make roads safer as not benefitting people travelling in cars. Statistics released last week show that the equivalent of more than 80 people were killed or seriously injured on our roads every day last year (29,742 people in total), with 788 car occupants dying after being involved in a road collision in 2022.
We can describe the costs of these tragedies in many ways – from the practical to the human, with the latter far outweighing the former. The DfT estimate the costs of ambulance, medical, and police responses of fatal and serious road collisions to be £584 million in 2022, while the ‘human costs’, based on people’s willingness to pay to reduce their, or their friends and relatives, chances of experiencing the pain and loss caused by such collisions were valued at almost £8 billion. In a further sign of the underlying inequality of car dependency, a higher proportion of those dying or seriously injured on our roads lived in more deprived areas of the country compared to those from less deprived areas, and that gap has been widening over the last 10 years.
we need to rethink how we use the word ‘freedom’ in regards to transport
Towards a real long-term plan for transport in England
So, what should a ‘long term plan for drivers’ in England really look like?
Fundamentally, the plan shouldn’t be about ‘drivers’, or any single mode, and should set out what we want the future of travel to look like and what goals the transport system should be working to. As the Institute for Civil Engineers have argued, England’s current lack of a national transport strategy is holding back the ability to deliver against long-term economic, environmental and social goals. Transport planners, at all levels of government, need a set of outcomes to guide investment and policy decisions. Both the Scottish and Welsh governments have set out a holistic, integrated vision of the future they are working to create. These may not be perfect, but at least they are grown-up attempts to use transport policy to reduce inequality, deliver inclusive economic growth, improve health, and address environmental crises.
Almost half (48 per cent) of British drivers say they would use their car less if public transport was better
Importantly, we need to rethink how we use the word ‘freedom’ in regards to transport. It is clear that driving is not always a choice but an expensive necessity that many are locked in to due to the lack of viable alternatives. Almost half (48 per cent) of British drivers say they would use their car less if public transport was better. As we have heard time and again through our engagement with the public: people want good transport options that allow them to choose to travel in the way that best meets their needs, supports a good quality of life and contributes to making places better for people and nature. Investment in improving bus services, better walking and cycling infrastructure and increasing local access to amenities are good for everyone.
In more pragmatic terms, just behind the cost of fuel, the second most pressing concern for those driving on British roads is the state of them. Spending on local road repairs in the UK has reduced by more than in nearly all other OECD countries. As the Transport Committee has said – we need investment in the maintenance of our roads a lot more than we need new ones. All future roads investment should be focussed on the maintenance, safety and climate resilience of our existing road network.
Transport has to change. The government is legally committed to meeting both near and long term climate goals. Ensuring the policies we put in place to deliver change to how people travel that is effective, fair, and achieves meaningful improvements in quality of life requires a public engagement strategy. There are also policies that the UK government could put in place in England today that are popular and could help us reach net zero: a national scrappage and mobility scheme that supports those living on lower incomes to access greener transport options, cutting the VAT rate on public chargers so those unable to charge at home aren’t penalised for it and introducing a social leasing scheme so those who need access to an electric car the most can afford to use one.
Recent polling by Public First for Onward revealed the most popular transport policy aimed at reducing emissions and cleaning up our air (with +45 net support) was ‘funding for more electric buses’. There’s an idea we've heard before and could sit at the heart of a plan for the future of England’s transport system that is fairer, greener, healthier and works better for those who drive and those who don’t.