The study, called Car Dependence, paints a picture of a society so transformed by widespread car ownership and use that most people can no longer think of life without wheels. The bald statistics of increasing car use show that, between 1950 and 1992, car ownership per household increased almost tenfold and as a result, people travelled, on average, three times as many miles per year.
As with all addictions, car dependence grows slowly. People buy a car when they can afford it and gradually their lifestyle changes so that they become unable to conceive of no longer having one. For example, they move to areas with little public transport, they obtain jobs too far away to travel by any other means or they have children who then need transporting.
Once people own a car, they make much less use of public transport and therefore the widespread increase in car ownership has sharply reduced the provision of public transport.
There has been, in particular, a sharp growth in the number of trips for shopping and for escorting children, both to school and to leisure activities, many of which involve short journeys. For example, nearly 7 per cent of journeys of under half a mile are now by car - nearly double the proportion in the 1970s. And 8.2 per cent of car journeys involve trips of less than one mile.
People in rural areas are the most dependent on car use, often being "forced" to use cars when their income cannot really support car ownership and therefore they sacrifice spending money on other basics such as food or housing.
International evidence suggests that car dependence is growing in nearly all developed countries. In only two countries is the proportion of journeys by car not increasing: in the US, where car use has virtually reached saturation point, for 98 per cent of all journeys, and the Netherlands, where the government has long had a policy of introducing radical measures to encourage other modes of transport, such as rail and cycling.
The research, which used both existing data and new surveys, suggests that for around 20 per cent of journeys, cars are virtually the only means of making the trip. In about 60 per cent of cases, the journey could be made by other means but it would either take longer or be much less practical.
The RAC says the report shows that efforts to reduce traffic by imposing blanket measures on all motorists, such as petrol price increases or road tolls, are misguided.
Edmund King, the RAC's head of campaigns, said: "We should concentrate on trying to reduce the number of journeys in the 20 per cent of cases where there is actually a genuine alternative."
However, the report warns that allowing current trends to continue, transport conditions are bound to deteriorate since there will be more traffic on the roads and fewer alternative forms of travel.
n Car Dependence is produced by the ESRC Transport Studies Unit, Oxford University, price pounds 25.
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