Trends in UK and US Car Ownership and Use

According to Robert Wright, (Financial Times, 23 December 2012), US car manufacturers are worried about the general decline in car use, and in particular the recent reduction in the number of teenagers obtaining driving licences. Alternatives to car use are becoming more attractive. Public transport in many US towns and cities has improved markedly in the last 30 years. For example, the authorities in Portland, Oregon, have successfully encouraged greater bike use. In response to these trends, Ford are supplying vehicles to the college campus sites of Zipcar, the car-sharing service. They reason that students who grow familiar with their cars, will eventually buy a Ford for themselves. US car-makers, have also sought to improve integration with mobile devices (e.g. phones) that have assumed the central role in many young adults’ lives which cars once held.

In a January 2010 article in the Canadian Globe and Mail Martin Mittelstaedt reported that

“Americans’ infatuation with their cars has endured through booms and busts, but last year (2009) something rare happened in the United States: The number of automobiles actually fell.

The size of the US car fleet dropped four million vehicles to 246 million. This is the only large decline that has occurred since records began  in 1960. The author notes that the decline in sales came despite the “cash-for-clunkers program”, in which the US government gave citizens up to $4,500 to trade-in older cars for new, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Mittelstaedt notes the sheer size of the US car fleet relative to the number of drivers. Currently, there are 117 motor vehicles for every 100 people with licences. The article points out that car ownership levels in Canada and the US are markedly different. At the time of the article there were about 75 cars on the road in Canada for every 100 people of driving age (including both those with and without licences). In the US, the comparable figure is 100 cars for 100 people of driving age.

Licence Holding and Vehicle Ownership

Some observers in the US argue that driving licence applications are just being deferred. The generation involved has suffered disproportionately from:

  • poor economic conditions in recent years;
  • higher insurance costs; and
  • tougher driving test requirements than those experience by their predecessors.

They speculate that as this group becomes established in full-time employment, they will need to obtain a licence and a car. They anticipate that the long-term trend for married couples to buy cars and live in the suburbs will re-establish itself.

One suspects that similar factors are influencing car ownership in the UK. The Vehicle Licencing Statistics 2012, published by the Department for Transport, show that the total number of vehicles on UK roads continues to grow, although at a much reduced level than before the credit crunch. Since 2008, the annual growth in licensed vehicles has averaged 0.5%, compared to 2.4% between 1996 and 2007.

MC900431538There are some interesting underlying trends in the UK. In April 2013, the AA Website featured an article concerning female car ownership. It was noted that women drivers have pushed their car ownership above 40% for the first time, according to government statistics. Across the UK, 9.8 million women were registered with the DVLA as private car keepers last year, compared with 14.6 million men. Since 1994, the number of private cars with a female registered keeper has increased by 70%. Since the credit crunch, purchasing of new private cars has been more robust amongst women than men. Women’s purchases were down from 387,000 in 2007 to 363,900 in 2012, a fall of 6%. In the same period, new cars registered with male keepers fell from 575,400 to 475,100, down 17%. In 1975/76, only 29% of women held a full driving licence.  By 2011, of the 35 million holders of full driving licences, 16 million were women (46%).

Vehicle Use

On 30 November 2011 Samantha Schaefer (writing for Pacific Swell) noted that car usage in the US is declining. It fell 1.3 percent in the first eight months of the year of 2011 to the lowest point since 2003, according to the US Department of Transportation.

MC900441730It appears that this trend started in 2004 when miles travelled flattened and then began to decline in 2007. The trend is not necessarily tied to petrol prices. Prices have been erratic since the recession began in 2008, but national car mileage had already been steadily decreasing. The suggested causes of reduced vehicle mileages are:

  • the aging baby boomers who, as they retire and get older, are not commuting to work and are less likely to be driving; and
  • generation Y (people born during the 1980s and early 1990s) is drawn to live and work largely in urban areas where there is a sustainable culture that discourages car ownership and use.

Academic Research

In December 2012 Peter Jones and Scott Le Vine of University College London and Imperial College, prepared a report entitled “On the move – making sense of car and train travel trends in Britain” for the RAC Foundation.

In examining trends over the last 15-20 years the researchers note the following underlying trends:

  • a reduction in car mileage per annum by men, but no significant reduction in car ownership/dependence for commuting;
  • the main reduction is in younger age groups (of men) and there has actually been an increase in car use by over-60’s;
  • there has been a decrease in company car ownership and usage by men which explains much of the overall decline in car use by men;
  • for women car use in most age groups (over 20 years) is increasing; and
  • in London car use by men and women had stabilised before the 2008 credit crunch, and more recently there has been some decline in car use, primarily relating to company car ownership and use amongst men.

The researchers note that many young people are living with parents longer than previously. People are marrying later and many people have part-time jobs. Their ability/need to rent or own their own place of residence influences travel behavior.

Amongst the causal factors, leading to a slowing in the growth of car ownership and a  reduction in annual mileage per vehicle, referred to by the RAC report are:

  • increased costs of running a car (insurance, fuel, and parking);
  • income and GDP effects;
  • changes in taxation of company cars and fuel;
  • reductions in traffic speeds;
  • reductions in road capacity (particularly in Central London);
  • public transport improvements;
  • planning policies;
  • government encouragement of Smart Travel; and
  • broadband and mobile communications.

Company Cars

It is interesting to consider the implications of Jones and Le Vine’s analysis. They have highlighted the intricate ways in which the state of the economy and political decision-making influence travel behaviour both directly and indirectly. For example, in the UK government policies have reduced company car usage significantly. The average annual mileage for company cars is considerable higher (two or three times higher) than for privately owned cars. Therefore, a significant change in the company car ownership and use can have a disproportionate impact on road traffic levels.  In 1993/4 there were changes in the tax arrangement for company cars. Subsequently there have been a number of changes relating to business mileage and fuel which appear to have reduced the incentive for employers to provide company cars and for drivers to record high annual mileages. Overall company car ownership and mileage per annum has declined very significantly since the early 1990’s. It is fair to say that these factors are not well-represented within existing transport modelling frameworks.


About djtplan

Independent Transport Planner
This entry was posted in Transport Modelling, Transport Planning, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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