The covid pandemic has in many ways been a watershed moment for British society; commentators are likely to talk about “before” and “after” 2020-22 from now on. Times of crisis certainly focus the mind, and the UK as a whole has had to face up to many problems which were already there, as well as some new ones. One of its underlying, long-standing issues is that of transport and travel patterns. This has long been an area for debate over issues like personal freedom versus environmental cost, private versus public and the health of society versus the economy. Now that the five day commute is over for many people, some may expect car ownership to fall; research shows that, in fact, this is far from being the case.
When the government told people to work from home if at all possible during the pandemic, they did so in their millions; as much as 60% of the workforce during the first lockdown. Although this figure changed during subsequent restrictions, many of those who were able to carry out their jobs this way did so. This, of course, had huge implications for the transport network, and especially the roads. Even since the end of all restrictions in 2022, millions are choosing to avoid commuting if they possibly can; the proportion has fallen from 49% to 32%.
These new habits, however, still rely on the same road network, and every other part of the country’s infrastructure. This applies to delivery services, which now supply everything from hamburgers to used cars. The UK has largely developed as a road-based society since the end of WWII, from its motorways to its town and city centres. Out of town shopping complexes have long replaced the traditional high street as the place to go shopping, eating out and going to the cinema. For the vast majority of people, visiting such places means driving.
Driving is also essential for every rural community in the country. Although this is an extremely long-standing state of affairs, the fact is that investment in public transport in these areas is uneconomic in strictly “bottom line” terms, and has been reduced massively over several decades. In fact, cuts in rural amenities run so deep that even garages which carry out essential check MOT examinations are themselves thinner on the ground than they used to be. This, of course, means that residents have to drive their vehicles further to find a test centre, increasing the already huge demands on their cars and vans.
To add to this background, the need for car ownership throughout most of the UK was highlighted during the pandemic itself, among people who perhaps hadn’t realised its importance to their lives. If an average family was one where the daily commute was fundamental and normal, then restrictions changed this viewpoint completely. As well as home schooling and the furlough, many families came to realise that much of what they took for granted revolved around their car/s. As commuting also involves picking things up from the shops, takeaways etc., all these activities suddenly had to be thought about, and driven to.
Then there is the issue of public transport. The public were warned off using trains and buses during the pandemic, due to its cramped nature and thus increased risk of contracting covid. Stories then emerged of arguments and fights caused by people who would / wouldn’t wear face coverings, leading to more negative thoughts about this way of getting around. Certainly, when people were again allowed to visit their friends and families, most jumped straight into their clean, safe cars and looked forward to the journey.
There have been calls for many years for less car ownership in the UK. These often cite the damage done by exhaust fumes, the amount of land taken up to accommodate private vehicles, and the economic damage done by daily tailbacks. While some of these arguments are as valid in 2022 as they were in 2002, the fact is that the British public relies on its cars and vans. The green argument can be countered by cleaner engines and the rapid take up of electric vehicles. For drivers, contactless sourcing is joining the check MOT service online in helping them buy, lease and drive roadworthy vehicles more easily than ever before. For all of these reasons, those hoping for less cars on British roads after the pandemic are certain to be disappointed.