Which way forward for Britain's car and rail travel?
- 3 December 2012
- From the section Business
The BBC has been given the first look at research into something very strange, even shocking, that's been happening on Britain's roads over the past decade or so.
It's been right in front of us, but you probably haven't noticed.
The figures suggest, gulp, that we might just be falling out of love with the motor car - that the car might have "peaked", because the average number of miles we all drive has been virtually the same since about 2002.
They're calling this Peak Car, funnily enough, and it's not just happening here, it's happening in lots of wealthy countries, including America, where they normally have engine oil running through their veins.
At this point, I have a confession to make. My name is Richard, and I love cars. I sit and play "dream cars" with my five-year-old son, who tends to favour the white S1 Esprit.
Peak Car has come as quite a shock to me. So what is going on?
Peter Jones and Scott Le Vine from the Centre for Transport Studies, at University College London/Imperial College, were the experts who crunched the numbers.
They analysed government data for Britain between 1995 and 2007, purposefully stopping at that point to exclude the effects of the recession.
Here's the weird thing. The research shows about 70% of us are driving more, especially women of all ages.
In fact, if you left out company cars, young men and Londoners, Peak Car wouldn't exist, but when you include those three groups, the average mileage per person begins to level out.
Let's single out young men, for example.
When I were a nipper, I wanted nothing more than to get hold of the keys to my dad's white Cavalier Sri (five-speed, 92bhp, low-profile tyres, no power-steering).
My brother and I would drool over the brochures every time dad was about to pick a new company car.
And when Paddy at my school drove in one day in his souped-up Morris Minor, with a button that said 'Grenade launcher', that was heaven.
But getting your licence is no longer the status symbol it once was for a young man-about-town. Men in their 20s drive 2,000 miles a year less than they did in the mid-90s.
There are some obvious reasons why.
We talked to 19-year-old Lee Vernon who is brave enough to want to drive around Mansfield in a three-wheeler (would the owner's club please not email me with their complaints - it's just a joke).
The thing is, his £850 car has never left the driveway because he can't afford the £2,800 insurance. So's he's been forced to sell up.
He believes that attitudes to cars are changing among young men: "I think what's changed is that everybody got used to using Facebook or their phones and sitting around, and using public transport.
"I don't think that anyone even cares about cars any more."
Facebook, Twitter, mobiles, all make it easier to socialise without travelling.
Petrol is eye-wateringly expensive. And more young men live at home, so they might be able to use their family car.
Having said all that, driving for young women is going up, and surely they are just as skint?
In fact, women of all ages drive much more than they used to. More have licences, and they're driving further too.
I won't give her age away, but my mum drives everywhere. Yet her mother would never have dreamt of getting behind the wheel."
Trains, strains and automobiles
Probably most significant of all, company car mileage dropped by nearly 40% between 1995-7 and 2005-7, presumably because they took away many tax breaks.
If you strip company cars out of the picture, private car mileage actually kept going up until 2007, albeit slowly.
This is what the report has to say about it: "The aggregate levelling off in average car mileage since the late 1990s appears to be almost entirely due to the reduced contribution of company car mileage."
Then there is London. If you live there or you have visited recently you will know how good the public transport is - and how expensive the congestion charge and parking are.
The whole rail and bus network has been beefed up over the past few years. Against all predictions it even coped brilliantly with the Olympics.
So that is probably why driving mileage across the capital fell by 20% in the decade leading up to the recession.
Funnily enough, rural car mileage went up by 6% over the same period - and if you have ever tried to get a bus in the countryside, you will know why.
The research, which was actually commissioned by the RAC Foundation, the Independent Transport Commission, the Office of Rail Regulation and Transport Scotland, also looks at the corresponding boom on the trains over the same period.
There has been a 67% growth in rail travel in Britain since 1995 including a tripling of business use.
Interestingly, there has not been the equivalent rail boom in other Peak Car countries.
OK, so why does all this matter?
Well, it matters because the government wants to spend billions of pounds on roads, based on the assumption that there will be a 44% rise in traffic levels by 2035, mainly because of a big rise in the population.
But what if they are wrong? What if the models they use aren't accurate enough and they're spending money on the wrong thing?
Well, I know ministers are very interested in this research, because they told me, but they're yet to be convinced Peak Car isn't just a blip.
Some would also argue that even if mileage per person is flat, the population is rising, so the number of cars and miles driven is rising.
Which way next?
So, is Peak Car a blip, or a permanent trend?
For now, the jury is still out. This research analyses in great depth what is happening.
The next piece of research must now look into why it is happening.
Incidentally, we tried to make the whole film without using a car, because we thought it would be clever.
In the end, we failed to make the whole film without a car - it was simply impractical.
However, we did travel with the crew to Sussex and London by train but filming at Southampton docks and Mansfield proved impossible.
Anyway, watch the film if you can, tell me what you think - we even spoke to Captain Kirk about it.
BBC Inside Out is broadcast on BBC One on Monday, 3 December at 19:30 GMT.
Tweet me @richardwestcott with your views and thoughts.