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Will concern for the environment put the brakes on car use?

Posted on 30 August 2017 by Eleanor Attar Taylor, Senior Researcher
Tags: BSA, British Social Attitudes, Climate change, environment, transport

In November 2016 the UK signed the Paris climate agreement, which aims to cut global carbon emissions and avoid the worst effects of climate change. This has put the UK under renewed pressure to reduce its emissions. In London, where I work and live, the mayor Sadiq Khan has introduced a host of actions including a new “T-charge” coming into effect in October 2017 to discourage high emissions vehicles in the centre of the city. A number of other areas across the country such as Manchester and West Yorkshire are also implementing low-emissions strategies.

But what do the British public think? Is there concern about the effects of transport on the environment and how willing are people to change their behaviours?

Climate-change sceptics?

We certainly aren’t a nation of climate-change sceptics. The latest British Social Attitudes findings published by the Department for Transport show that the vast majority of people, (84%) believe that climate change is taking place and is at least partly man-made; this is an increase from 76% in 2011and the highest level we’ve recorded on the BSA survey.

Belief in climate change, 2011-2016

Belief in climate change 2011-16, BSA

And there’s also evidence that the public are concerned about the air quality in our urban areas; 54% say that exhaust fumes in towns and cities are a serious problem for them. Unsurprisingly, this percentage is higher when we just look at people living in large cities (63%), and particularly in London (73%); however a significant proportion of those living in rural areas (45%) also say this is a problem for them. Cars, vans and lorries are seen as the worst types of transport for the environment. 79% say vans and lorries have a high impact on climate change, while 69% say this about cars. In comparison around half of the public select buses and coaches (49%) and planes (48%).

Do as I say, not as I do

So there is concern about damage to the environment and cars are seen as being among the worst culprits. But while a majority (61%) agree that everyone should reduce how much they use their cars for the sake of the environment, only 40% say they are willing to reduce the amount they travel by car, and just under half (47%) agree there’s no point in reducing their own car use until others do so too.

It’s clear that when it comes to their own personal circumstances, many people view reducing car use as a difficult thing to do. When we ask people whether they could just as easily use alternative modes of transport for the short journeys they currently make by car, 44% say they could walk  rather than use the car. Fewer say they could just as easily cycle if they had a bike (39%), and fewer still say they could just as easily take the bus (30%). People are likely to be held back from using alternative modes by a number of factors. Our analysis has found that older age groups and disabled people are less likely to say they can use modes other than driving, and those in rural areas are less likely to be able to use the bus.

What can be done?

If the public don’t view alternative modes of transport as viable for short journeys where does that leave the government? There is little support for an increase on car taxes, 21% agree that car users should pay higher taxes for the sake of the environment, while almost half (49%) disagree with this.

However, asked if they would be willing to buy a car with lower emissions, the majority of people (77%) said that they would be happy to do this. And  almost two-thirds (64%) of people say that those who drive environmentally-friendly vehicles should pay less to use the roads than drivers of heavily polluting ones.

Interestingly we know from the latest National Travel Survey figures released in July that there has already been some decline in car use. Since 2002 the number of trips people make by car as a driver has decreased by 11%, and as a passenger by 16%. This is part of a wider trend of a decline in travel since 2002. Overall people are making fewer shopping trips (down by 18%), fewer trips to see friends (down by 17%) and fewer commuting trips (13%) since 2002, perhaps due to technological advances in communication and the rise of online shopping.

It’s unclear whether this pattern will continue indefinitely, and there are signs that this decrease in travel is slowing, so it is vital that other ways of reducing car use and its effects are pursued in order to improve Britain’s environmental record. The BSA findings indicate that while many people are not willing or able to reduce their car use, embracing technological advances, such as moving to lower emissions vehicles, could be the key in helping Britain reduce emissions and improve air quality.

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