TRANSPORT MATTERS: Have car numbers passed their peak?

A typically busy rural Northumberland main road taken on a Monday afternoon on the A697 near Powburn.
A typically busy rural Northumberland main road taken on a Monday afternoon on the A697 near Powburn.

When I go south, I tell people that we have our own terminology in Northumberland: Traffic congestion means I can see another car; Severe traffic congestion means it has had to slow down for some sheep.

There is a contradiction here, as car usage is beginning to reduce generally, but people in places like Northumberland are having to use cars more now, as places that we need to go to, like hospitals, are becoming more concentrated in the big centres where the specialist staff and equipment are.

For many years planners have designed towns for motorists rather than pedestrians. It is not as easy to get around our towns on foot as it was.

We used to just ‘pop down to the corner shop’ but we cannot do that so much now. Supermarkets are generally designed for people to shop in their cars.

Most people aspired to have a car as they became available after the war. The numbers increased from the 1950s, and as they went up, naturally the number of bus passengers went down.

But cars are becoming more and more expensive to run, notably with the price of fuel having risen steeply, and there has been a slight reduction in the use of cars generally. People are now searching around for alternatives. Many of the buses which used to be so plentiful have disappeared because we have not used them.

Bus passenger numbers throughout the country are still going down except in London, and local authorities are less able to keep socially-necessary services going because of the squeeze on their budgets.

The Government is trying to persuade people to cycle, but this is rather hazardous on rural roads, and the distances are sometimes too great for comfort. One of the most urgent needs in connection with cycling is the education of young cyclists in what you can and cannot do – many of them seem to think it is permissible to cycle on footways, but that is true only in very limited circumstances.

If young people are to be encouraged to cycle, they need to be taught the rules of the road. There used to be lessons in school playgrounds on Saturday mornings, and Cycling Proficiency Tests.

One of the obvious solutions to the problems of rural isolation and the cost of using a car is car-sharing, where neighbours agree to give each other lifts when they are making similar journeys, so that the cost is halved for each of them.

However, car numbers have now apparently passed their peak. The number of cars sold in the EU last year was the lowest for 20 years, perhaps because people are using theirs less, particularly for longer journeys, and keeping them longer, while the number of people travelling by train continues to rise rapidly.

It seems right, therefore, that investment should be directed more to the railways than to roads. It seems that at last the Government is taking such investment priorities seriously and committing to substantial infrastructure schemes such as railway electrification and new railway lines to increase the capacity of the rail network, while road schemes are being directed to making better use of the existing road network, with small rather than large construction projects.

As part of the reduction in car use overall, young men are noticeably using cars less. This may be due partly to the high cost of insurance. Insurance companies set their rates according to the risk, and young people have always been a high-risk group, especially young men. With the insurance companies now having to avoid discrimination between the sexes, they must charge the same premium for both, so the girls are having to pay more.

Young people of both sexes are inevitably inexperienced, however, and young men are too often prepared to take risks without considering the consequences. Young women tend to lack judgement in some situations, because of their lack of experience, without realising the risks they are taking. Another reason that young men are using cars less is thought to be that they no longer see cars so much as a status symbol, their interests now being centred on other things.

Another myth has apparently been disproved recently. It has long been thought that elderly people cause accidents by being slow to react, but they have been shown to react just as quickly as younger people. It is their experience that leads them to drive more prudently and economically.

One thing that interests me is that, while people complain about the increasing cost of fuel, many of them continue to drive their cars for performance rather than economy, and so their cars cost them much more than they need. Speed kills, in the sense that high-speed incidents result in worse injuries than low-speed ones, so driving for economy is also more likely to be safe driving.

Local authorities are being encouraged to introduce 20mph speed limits on residential roads in towns and on narrow country lanes, and more rural main roads are to have 40mph limits. When I am driving near the speed limit and find somebody impatient behind me, I think ‘if you find the present speed limits so difficult, what are you going to do when they are reduced?’

* John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? Normal price £14.95, available to Gazette readers for £11.95 (post paid). Order from the Northumberland Gazette office.