Traffic levels fall for first time in decades: Motor firms head for crash

The 'great car economy', championed by Margaret Thatcher in the Eighties, faces its biggest challenge

Traffic on Britain's roads is decreasing significantly for the first time since the three-day week of the early 1970s, suggesting the car economy is heading for a crash, official figures revealed yesterday.

In a sign that the country is already in recession, fewer car and lorry journeys on motorways, rural and urban roads were made over the last six months compared to the same period a year ago.

The Department for Transport (DfT) recorded two consecutive quarters where road traffic has decreased year on year – the first time for more than 30 years. If the trend continues to the end of the year, it will hugely undermine the "great car economy" championed by Margaret Thatcher.

At the same time, sales of new cars have fallen by 23 per cent and are at their lowest since 1996. The motor industry is suffering across the world, with Volvo, the Swedish giant, selling just 115 heavy trucks over the past few months, compared to 41,970 during the same period last year – a 99.7 per cent fall.

And the jobs of 3,700 people at two UK car plants are at risk after General Motors warned it would be bankrupt within months unless it received a bailout from the US government.

The new traffic figures emerged as the Government prepares to announce car-related tax cuts as part of Gordon Brown's strategy to get Britain through the recession. Planned vehicle excise duty increases for older cars are expected to be scrapped, while ministers are examining plans by the German government for tax reductions on green vehicles. On Friday the Prime Minister said he would work with other EU leaders on fiscal policy to support economic growth – a signal that tax cuts to reinvigorate the economy are being considered.

As Mr Brown and the Conservative leader, David Cameron, battle it out over the economy, a poll today puts the Conservatives 13 points ahead of Labour. The ICM survey for The Sunday Telegraph suggests that despite Labour's surprise win in the Glenrothes by-election, the "Brown bounce" could be short-lived.

Besides the three-day week in 1973 and two world wars, traffic has steadily increased since the beginning of mass production of the motor car more than a century ago. But the new DfT figures show a 2.2 per cent decrease between July and September this year. This followed a 0.5 per cent decrease between April and June. The decline runs against the official predicted trend of an increase in traffic of 1-2 per cent a year.

Traffic congestion has also decreased on motorways and A-roads. The average vehicle delay on the slowest 10 per cent of journeys was 3.67 minutes, down from 3.95 minutes for the year ending September 2008.

Britain is in the early stages of a recession, with unemployment rising and industry shrinking, leading to fewer cars and HGVs on the roads. But during the recession of the 1990s, traffic remained static, suggesting there are other reasons for the decline.

It would appear thousands of motorists are giving up driving, either because of soaring fuel costs, rising parking and car taxes or because of the environmental cost.

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, said: "It is too early to say there is a definite long-term trend here, but there is no doubt these are the best figures we have to go on suggesting a decline in traffic."

Tony Bosworth of Friends of the Earth said: "The Government must help people to use their cars less – and tackle climate change – by giving them better public transport alternatives, and making it safer and easier to cycle and walk."

Adrian Ramsay, deputy leader of the Green Party, said: "It's good to see that people are making better use of other travel options as they feel the pinch of the rising cost of using the car. There will be a limit to how many people can make this choice. Too many towns and cities have such poor and expensive public transport that people are stuck using the car."

When she was Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher hailed the car-based economy as the ultimate expression of the individual over the state. In the 1980s and 1990s, road traffic rose substantially from 215 billion vehicle kilometres in the year 1980 to 378.7 billion in 2000. Last year traffic reached 513 billion vehicle kilometres.

Car ownership has steadily increased over the past decade, with the proportion of households in Britain without access to a car falling from 30 per cent in 1997 to 25 per cent in 2007. Homes with two or more cars outnumber those with no cars, increasing from 25 per cent to 32 per cent.

Road transport produces around a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions. Nearly 60 per cent of this is from cars. This summer petrol reached 118p a litre, but many retailers have since lowered this to below £1 a litre after criticism from the Prime Minister.

the ex-motorist: 'I feel a lot fitter and more alert now. I don't miss having a car at all'

Gary Mahoney, 50, from Liverpool, works for the council's environmental protection department. He gave up his Toyota Corolla seven months ago.

"The car was something of a family heirloom and I used it for the five-mile trip to work, as well as to take my mum round for her shopping. The car died about seven months ago and I decided to scrap it. I was sentimentally attached to it but it was the right time to get rid of it. I was increasingly uncomfortable with having the car because of my job. I am aware of the damage cars can do, particularly in terms of air pollution.

"Now I cycle to work, car-share with a colleague, or I take the bus and I walk a lot more than I did before. I feel a lot fitter physically and I get to work feeling a lot more alert than I used to. I also feel better about myself and better about the environment. I would encourage people to think about doing the same as me, if their circumstances allow it. I don't miss having a car at all."

Ian Griggs

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'