In Context - Trams and trains take the strain

Here's a tale of two profs.

One, Professor Philip Goodwin, headed transport research at UCL before moving to UWE, the University of Western England, in 2005. He has become celebrated for his theory of Peak Car: the proposition that in advanced economies like ours, car use peaked around ten years ago and is now in decline. The other, Professor Peter Jones, succeeded him at UCL. Last week, he became equally celebrated, with a peak slot on the Today programme, for his new research. With Scott Le Vine of Imperial College, he's re-crunched the UK data. And he's found that Peak Car is a myth.

On the Move: Making sense of car and train travel trends in Britain concludes bluntly that "the notion that car traffic peaked in the mid-2000s is at best an oversimplification". In fact, the story varies greatly from one part of the country to another. In the south-west, car traffic grew until the onset of recession in 2008, but in London, car traffic has fallen since 1998. One critical finding is that company cars have been abandoned in favour of rail for business journeys, particularly by males under 50. Their overall car use for business journeys actually fell, while that of women rose.

If business journeys are discounted, car use continued to rise strongly among the over-30s, outside London, until the start of the downturn. And this group comprises 70 per cent of the total driving-age population. Cars continue to account for no less than 79 per cent of total passenger journeys.

London is the big exception. Here, there has been a big shift from the car to public transport, especially rail. But London is out of line with the rest of the country. Regional and local differences are becoming more important; national forecasts and trends conceal what's happening.

The new research has major policy implications. In France, which has engaged in an orgy of investment in tram networks, new research by Xavier Desjardins of the Sorbonne shows that 0n the fringes of provincial French cities, beyond the tram termini, much of the new growth in traffic has been outside rail corridors, where people are car-dependent.

What's needed is a Heineken effect: transport that reaches the places other transport cannot reach. Possible for beer, maybe; harder for trams.

Sir Peter Hall is Bartlett professor of planning and regeneration, University College London.

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