The never-ending cycle of car dependency in England

Living in Hong Kong, I never needed a car, in fact, I hardly ever needed to take a taxi, just about everywhere was accessible by public transport.

My apartment was a ten-minute walk from the nearest MTR station in Tsing Yi, from where it was just a 15-minute ride to both downtown Hong Kong and the airport. My office relocated twice during my 15-year tenure but the commute was never more than 40-minutes door-to-door.

In contrast, one of my first tasks when I got back to England last summer was to buy a car. I live in a rural village in Kent with a limited bus service and I knew from past experience that a car was essential. What I did not appreciate was just how many other people would have cars as well. Not just one but multiple cars. A friend in a neighbouring village has nine vehicles at the last count.

Car ownership has increased steadily over the last few decades and the United Kingdom now has 600 vehicles per 1,000 people, and ranks 36th on the global vehicle density scale, compared with Hong Kong way down the list at 132 with a density of 109 vehicles per 1,000 people.

By far the densest region in the UK is where I live in the southeast of England. In 2020, the average number of cars per UK household was 1.24 but in the southeast it was 1.46, a 12 percent increase since 2013.

When you look at the statistics for vehicle numbers per household, the trend becomes very apparent. While the proportion of single vehicle households has remained relatively stable at just over 40 percent, the proportion of households with two or more cars increased from eight percent in 1971 to 33 percent in 2021, while the proportion of households without a car dropped from 48 percent to 22 percent, and that figure includes London where vehicle ownership is lowest.

Another trend that was obvious to me when I got back was the increase in van ownership, largely driven by the boom in online shopping. This is especially evident in rural communities without local amenities who rely almost entirely on van drivers to deliver everything from groceries to furniture and consumer durables. Once peaceful country lanes have now become a racecourse for van drivers hurrying to meet onerous deadlines.

According to a report by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, 3.4 million people, or ten percent of the UK workforce, rely on a van to earn a living, a remarkable 59 percent increase since 2000.

Vehicle numbers and road traffic did fall in 2020 due to covid travel restrictions but numbers are increasing again and all the indicators are that numbers will continue to rise in the future.

In small towns and villages, local amenities, shops and pubs are closing down all the time, further reducing the goods and services within walking and cycling distance. At the same time, the increase in vehicle traffic has put a lot of people off cycling or even walking longer distances because it is too dangerous. So, they take to their cars (plural) instead.

The primary school in my village has about 400 students and actively encourages them to walk, cycle or take public transport, yet every morning and mid-afternoon the village is invaded by an army of mothers in SUVs dropping off and collecting their charges.

On recent trip to the massive new “garden city” in Ebbsfleet in northwest Kent, it was startling to see how many new houses had double parking spaces. The housing estate developers told us that this is what buyers want, even if they only have one car, the assumption is that additional parking spaces add value to the property.

This is of course completely out of sync with the idea of a garden city. The Ebbsfleet Development Corporation says it will eventually prioritise walking, cycling and public transport over private cars but it will face an uphill battle against private developers and homeowners who cannot kick the car habit.

And now Britain’s car addicts have a new champion in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who thinks he can glean a few more votes out of the electorate by rolling back any environmental policies that might somehow inconvenience motorists.

Back in my village, the already fragile bus service is becoming even more fractured. Hundreds of secondary school students were left stranded at the beginning of the new school year by sudden and unannounced cancellations, which meant that parents had to use another one of their cars to take their children to school in Canterbury.

After a public outcry, the bus company has promised to provide sufficient transport but the long-term prospects are grim. The privately-owned company that operates the bus service doesn’t make any money from school students and is unlikely to make them a priority in the future, leading to even more cars on the road.

The village development plan includes a proposal for a dedicated cycle path to Canterbury but there are no concrete plans in place yet, and I suspect, given the sedentary nature of most school students today, it would not be utilized even if it were built.

For more on car culture, please see my 2006 book Why did the White Fella Climb the Rock; God, Chaos and Colonialism. Chapters 17 and 18 deal with the key role played by the automobile in American and Australian society.

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