Cars out, vans in? The traffic of tomorrow

Date : 12 December 2018

New UK traffic data has shown a further increase in the overall distance being travelled in 2017, with worrying implications for our supply chains. But there is other evidence that younger people are no longer in love with their cars. James has investigated the data and here are his insights.

Jam tomorrow?

Data from the Department For Transport shows that GB road traffic reached record levels in 2017, with motor vehicles covering 327bn road miles (526bn road kilometres) 1.

Traffic growth is expected to continue until at least 2050, even under the Department’s most conservative scenario conditions 2.

This is a bleak prospect for both private and commercial vehicle operators, since it implies more traffic jams and perhaps also more accidents.

It also implies continued environmental impact from motor vehicles, explaining why the UK government is so keen to accelerate transition away from fossil fuels for transport.

Given the continued growth of the UK population, increasing traffic is perhaps unsurprising: more people implies that more journeys will be made by car or by other road vehicles.

It also implies that more road vehicle movements must be made by the businesses that serve the needs of a growing population.

When we dig into the official data, however, some interesting trends begin to emerge. Keep reading and we will take a look.

Source: Table TRA0101, Department For Transport, December 2018

Falling out of love with the car?

The number of cars in the UK is rising 3, reflecting growing population and a gradual increase in households owning multiple cars. The average number of miles travelled per-car per-year is falling, however.

The National Travel Survey (which covers England only) shows that individuals are making fewer car trips and covering shorter distances each year 4.

Source: Table NTS0303, National Transport Survey, Department For Transport, December 2018

Furthermore, individuals are coming to driving later – the proportion of 17 to 20 year-olds with a full licence is in long-term decline, especially for young men.

Cost is apparently a key factor in excluding young adults from driving – to be expected, given the financial pressures on them. Top reasons given by 17 to 20 year-olds for not having a driving licence are 4:

  • Cost of learning to drive 40%
  • Cost of insuring a car 28%
  • Cost of buying a car 26%

After cost, the next most-common reason for not having a driving licence was “not interested in driving”, mentioned by 22%.

Source: Table NTS0201, National Transport Survey, Department For Transport, December 2018

This is a little surprising, in view of the cultural and practical role of the car in modern society - not to mention the efforts made by the motor industry to market their products.

It may be that technology has made driving less necessary than it once was for learning, leisure, shopping and work, but being unable to drive may have economic impacts on the individual, at least in some locations.

If public transport is unable to fill the gap, then being unable to drive may mean being unable to access better-paid work, or any work at all.

Not going out any more?

Taking a wider view, it seems that citizens are travelling less overall, making fewer journeys and covering less distance by all types of vehicle, when viewed on a per-person-per year basis 4.

Source: Table NTS0403 National Transport Survey, Department For Transport, December 2018

For readers of this blog, the reduction in the number of shopping journeys will be of particular interest. This might be because shopper affluence has been fairly flat for much of the period recorded, undermining the willingness and ability of individuals to shop. The surging growth of remote shopping may also make many personal shopping journeys unnecessary.

For retail planners, travel trends give a view of possible future shopper behaviour. It seems reasonable to imagine that future grocery shoppers – unable or unwilling to drive – will eschew large, out-of-town stores in favour of smaller stores which they can walk or cycle to.

Transaction sizes may also be affected, since, without a car, there are limits to how much a shopper can carry away from the store.

Lighten up

Of course, goods ordered remotely must still be delivered physically. So, rather than a customer’s private vehicle travelling to a store, a commercial vehicle must travel to the customer – often at considerable cost.

The DfT data may show that this is happening. Taking the year 2000 as a benchmark (the year that was launched), total GB road traffic has increased by 13%.

Road traffic by light commercial vehicles (LCVs) has increased by 55% over the same period, moving from 11% of total traffic to 15%. LCV numbers are also rising 3.

At the same time, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) traffic has reduced slightly, in absolute terms and as a proportion of the total.

Source: Table TRA0101, Department For Transport, December 2018

An LCV is defined as having a gross vehicle mass 5 of less than 3.4 long tons (3.5 tonnes) – a Transit-type panel van, for example.

From the data, it is impossible to say exactly why LCV traffic has increased so dramatically – a chronic shortage of HGV drivers is one possible explanation, if it encourages businesses to move to using LCVs instead 6.

However, it does seem likely that much of this LCV traffic is accounted for by businesses making delivery of goods ordered remotely – LCVs are the type of vehicle used by many couriers.

This is certainly the conclusion drawn by the RAC Foundation 7 and the rapid growth of LCV traffic in line with remote shopping is hard to ignore.

Unleash the ‘bots

Grocery and foodservice businesses are experimenting with autonomous or semi-autonomous road vehicles as a way of making urban deliveries cost effective – examples include the CargoPod by Oxbotica / Ocado and the apparently-unnamed Starship Technologies / Co-op “thing”.

Source: Ocado Technology

There is clearly scope for huge savings to be made by these machines when compared with manned vehicles, but they must deal with an increasingly crowded and hazardous road environment – this is a significant challenge for programmers (and, probably, lawyers too).

It is also clear that, even an electric vehicle still creates social costs and risks, if only by taking up space on the road or pavement – traffic created by them is still … traffic. Regulators and law-makers are sure to take an interest to ensure that social costs are shared fairly.

International picture

It is hard to gauge whether other countries share the same transport trends as the UK, since international data is somewhat patchy.

However, the rapid growth of online retail internationally suggests that the accompanying transport challenges must also be growing.

Data from OECD shows that the commercial vehicle fleets in many developed markets have grown since 2000, when viewed on a vehicles-per-1,000-people basis. This suggests that serving the needs of shoppers may be becoming less efficient over time, although this is hard to prove conclusively.

Source: OECD, December 2018

Collaborative solutions

Autonomous vehicles may or may not be the answer to modern transport challenges but, even if they are, they are unlikely to be implemented at scale any time soon.

Solutions will have to be delivered primarily with the transport assets that businesses and shoppers have now. One way forward may be to collaborate more widely to reduce needless vehicle movements, via ride sharing.

Technology now exists to make this easier than ever and IGD has taken a lead in bringing businesses together to find collaborative solutions to shared commercial and social issues.

You can find out more about our collaborative supply chain workshops by clicking here. You can also download our free report, outlining how supply chains develop in future by clicking here.

Notes and sources:

(1) Table TRA0101, Department For Transport, December 2018

(2) Scenarios 1, 3 and 5, Road Traffic Forecasts 2018, Department For Transport, September 2018

(3) Vehicle Licensing Statistics, Department For Transport, September 2018

(4) National Travel Survey 2017, Department For Transport, July 2018

(5) Gross vehicle mass is the total weight of the vehicle including cargo, but excluding any trailer

(6) LCVs are exempt from many of the requirements for HGVs – eg: limited driver hours, special MOT tests

(7) Implications Of Internet Shopping Growth On The Van Fleet And Traffic Activity, RAC Foundation, May 2017


James Walton

James Walton

Chief Economist

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