Cars in cities
Passing your driving test was a traditional rite of passage for many British teenagers, and in the early nineties nearly half of all 17-20 year olds had a driving licence (75% of all 21-29 year olds). However, since then there has been a sustained decline in car use among young adults – so much so, that by 2014, the number of 17-20 year olds with a driving licence had fallen to 29%.
This can partly be explained by more fundamental changes in life circumstances, such as increased entry into higher education, lower employment rates, higher costs of living and marrying at a later age. As a result, the younger generation are reaching adult milestones later, and this includes driving a car. Yet these delays in adulthood aside, car usage overall is falling - we are making 16% fewer car trips today than in 1996.
In London at least, this means the rate of car ownership is slowly declining. However, this is not yet evident in the other major cities where car ownership is increasing. This data is taken from the 2011 census and so must be treated with some caution. We suspect that the next Census is likely to show car ownership has begun to decline in the bigger cities of Manchester and Liverpool (which already have among the lowest levels of car ownership, and an increasingly supportive public transport network).
Figure 1: New car registrations, 000s, 2001-2017
Source: Department for Transport Statistics Table VEH0150
The steady shift away from car ownership partly reflects technological change, which means owning a car is less of a necessity. For example, online shopping now makes up 17.5% of all retailing, up from a base of zero twenty years ago. But other factors are also influencing these trends, from a tendency towards train usage to avoid road congestion, consciously being environmentally responsible and the lack of available parking at our homes and in our towns.
Uber is perceived by some to provide a cheaper alternative to both personal car usage and traditional taxi cabs; and with Uber Pool facilitating sharing between passengers, this is better value and more accessible than ever. And car clubs are becoming a convenient and cost-effective means of accessing cars: some 170,000 people in London are estimated to belong to a car club. This is projected to grow to 1 million by 2025 (3.3 million members across England and Wales). Extrapolating these trends could suggest around 8 million members by 2040.
It’s possible that a rise in autonomous vehicles might throw this decline in car usage into reverse. The requirement to pass a test and then do so again at age 70, acts as a brake on the number of people able to drive. But if the skill required to drive a car is significantly reduced, usage could well increase. However, the cost of owning and operating such a new piece of technology could be significant. This suggests that by 2040, the UK’s cities could still be experiencing lower, rather than higher, levels of car usage than today. This might just make way for all the extra trucks which, as we write elsewhere, we suspect will be needed to deliver e-commerce parcels in urban areas.