How Londoners are driving away from the rest of Britain

Allister Heath
THOSE of us who work or live in London often have rather different habits than the rest of Britain. Transport is a case in point. No less than 51 per cent of the distance travelled every year by UK residents is as a car driver, and another 27 per cent as a car passenger. Rail makes up only eight per cent, according to research from the RAC Foundation.

But the situation in and around London is quite different, with trains, tubes and the Docklands Light Railway grabbing a huge share of the market. Remarkably, the proportion of all National Rail journeys that are to/from or within London was an astonishing 57 per cent at last count; there is still very little rail travel in most of the country, despite a strong increase in recent years.

There have been several important changes in the car habits of all Britons but especially Londoners. There has been a historic reduction in the mileage clocked up in company cars; these are on the way out, partly because of severe tax changes. A 50 per cent slump in company car mileage led to an overall six per cent decline in the UK’s per capita car mileage between 1995-7 and 2008-10. The population has increased during this time, of course, and these figures don’t include vans or lorries. During the same time, national rail per capita mileage rocketed 54 per cent.

However, journeys made in privately owned cars are still growing outside London. Personal per capita car mileage rose five per cent in the UK between 1995-97 and 2008-10. This rise masks two trends: mileage among men in their 20s has tumbled, largely because 18 per cent fewer of that age group have a driving licence – a fascinating cultural change probably explained by car and petrol prices and tax, a reduced propensity for full-time work, as well as the rise of alternatives on which to spend cash, such as technology – but women drive far more than they used to.

London, once again, is different. Car mileage was flat for those residents aged over 30, not that different to the rest of the UK – but mileage for Londoners as a whole collapsed 24 per cent, driven by an especially pronounced decline in driving by those in their 20s, especially men but also women. Reasons for this undoubtedly include the congestion fee, poor traffic and parking, the rise of cycling, extra public transport and London’s demographic make-up. National rail mileage in London rose just 13 per cent, partly because this excludes other forms of rail (such as the tube) but also because trains already have a very high share.

So private car miles per person rose five per cent in the UK – but plummeted by a quarter in London. No wonder polls show Londoners and commuters from the home counties care about the price of petrol, but less so than elsewhere; the cost of public transport matters proportionally more. Britain and its capital city continue to move apart, in almost every way; that is one journey that still has many miles to go.

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