Commuters are 'travelling in the right direction' for the first time in decades
Car use declines as cycling and taking public transport to work increase in several areas.
The number of people travelling to work in England and Wales using sustainable transport has risen for the first time in decades, as the proportion of car use dropped by nearly 2% in the last 10 years, according to new research published in PLOS ONE.
Cycling and taking public transport to work have seen notable increases in London and several other cities. But most of Wales, the Midlands and North England are as reliant as ever on using their cars for the daily commute.
Dr Anna Goodman, Research Fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, used data from the 2011 census to find out how our daily commute has changed over recent decades. Dr Goodman’s work was funded by the National Institute for Health Research.
The number of people cycling to work in 2011 was highest across Greater London. The capital has now overtaken South East England as the highest cycling region of England and Wales, with increased cycling levels in 29 out of 33 boroughs. Particularly impressive is Hackney, where the number of commuting cyclists increased by more than any other local authority in the country (15.4 % of all commuters cycled in 2011, up by 8.6% since 2001).
There were also notable rises in cycling in the Isles of Scilly (21.2%, up 5.6%), Cambridge (32.6%, up 4.2%), Bristol (8.2%, up 3.3%), and Oxford (19.1%, up 2.8%). Overall, 3.1% of all journeys to work were made on bicycle across England and Wales, an increase of 0.1% since 2001.
Dr Goodman from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “Cycling to work in England and Wales has only risen overall by a very small amount, but even this is something to celebrate as cycling had been steadily declining across the previous four censuses. London in particular has seen an impressive increase in the proportion of people opting to cycle to work. Most interestingly, we are starting to see more affluent people cycling to work, which bucks the trend of the wealthiest usually being in their cars while those less well-off walk, cycle or use public transport.”
The sustainable transport charity Sustrans, which was not involved in the study, have used the census data to create a series of maps showing the travel habits of the nation. The maps show changes in the proportion of commuters using each method of travel.
Malcolm Shepherd, Chief Executive of Sustrans, said: “We’re pleased to see more commuters are ditching the car and getting on bikes or taking public transport. Although cycling is on the up, this research highlights the huge difference between increased cycling in cities compared to a drop in many rural areas. The government recently announced significant funding to improve cycling in eight cities and four national parks across England over the next two years. Whilst Sustrans welcomed the government funding as an important step in the right direction, investment needs to be long term and cover all areas of the country, making it easier and safer for as many people as possible to choose cycling for their everyday journeys.”
Public transport use increased overall in England and Wales (17.8% of people used public transport to commute, up by 1.8% since 2001) with substantial increases across Greater London (53.4%, up 7.3%), the South East (13.3%, up 2.0%) and East of England (13.2%, up 1.1%). However, it fell in the North East (14.0%, down 1.2%) and Yorkshire and the Humber (12.3%, down 1.2%).
Across England and Wales, 67.1% of people used their car, van or motorcycle as their usual main commute mode, a decrease of 1.8% since 2001. The southern regions saw the greatest declines in commuting by car, with a particularly large decrease in Greater London (32.2% of all commuters used private motorised transport in 2011, down by 8.8% since 2001).
Outside London, however, a large majority of commuters are still dependent on their cars, and there have been increases in car use in Wales (79.4%, up 0.8%), and the regions of the North East (71.8%, up 1.3%), Yorkshire and the Humber (71.7%, up 1.3%), East Midlands (76.5%, up 1.3%) and West Midlands (75.5%, up 0.8%).
Dr Goodman added: “People in England and Wales remain highly car-dependent, but this research suggests we are starting to see a slight decline in car use and an increase in the alternatives. This gives some hope that people are travelling in the right direction towards creating a healthier and more environmentally sustainable transport system.”
Although cycling often gets more attention from policy-makers interested in encouraging people to do more exercise, the findings also suggest that walking should be considered a priority. 10.9% of journeys to work were made on foot overall in England and Wales, with particularly high levels of walking commuters found in Norwich (24.8% of all commuters) and Exeter (24.1%).
- Anna Goodman. Walking, cycling and driving to work in the English and Welsh 2011 census: trends, socio-economic patterning and relevance to travel behaviour in general. PLOS ONE. Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071790
Image: Cycling highway in London. Credit: Tfl Press