The multi-car society: is the UK still dependent on the car?

5 minutes

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Car ownership is at an all-time high in the UK but is that trend about to change? Leon Poultney takes a look...

  • The history of how the UK became a multi-car society
  • How many vehicles are registered on UK roads?
  • Could technology see a move away from ownership?

Evelyn Ellis in his Panhard-Levassour in 1895.

The past

Ever since the UK's maiden voyage aboard a 'petroleum motor carriage' was taken in 1895 by Evelyn Ellis, we have been a nation obsessed with the motorcar. Fast forward to 1934, and close to 2.5 million motorised vehicles were using Britain's roads, according to Juliet Gardiner, author of The Thirties: An Intimate History.

According to figures from The Society or Motor Manufacturers and Traders, car ownership hovered around 19 million in 1971, but exploded to over 31 million in 2007.

The one-car household had been practically the norm since the early 1960s, but the number of multi-car families, with access to two or more cars, has risen dramatically since that date. In fact, by the mid-1990s, there were more families in the UK with at least two cars than there were with no car at all.

This could be attributed to a number of factors, such as the fact that cars have become more reliable, lasting longer, and the amount of scrappage has dipped.

A family road trip before multi-car households became common.

The present

Research by Statista states that by the end of 2020, most British households (36.15 million) owned at least one car, with an estimated 25.7 more households owning two cars.

As the number of households with more than one car increases, we have seen the introduction of multi-car insurance, as car owners sought to protect more than one vehicle at a time.

The government changed the way it approached new car tax in March 2018 to cope with the number of new vehicles using the roads, imposing a blanket cost of £140 per year, unless said vehicle produced zero emissions.

But even though the car is still the most popular form of transport, there has been a decrease in young people holding a driving license. 'Many motoring manufacturers are worried that young people just aren't as enthusiastic about cars as they were in previous decades,' says Jack Evans (@jackrober), features editor at automotive content providers Blackball Media.

'Improvements in technology, the ease of on-demand taxi services like Uber and the cost of motoring for young people, including driving lesson fees, car tax and car insurance, have likely contributed to the decline in 17 to 21 year-olds getting behind the wheel,' he adds.

Electric cars have been around for a while!

The future

Could we one day see the sort of car-free future that World Car Free Day attempts to visualise on September 22 every year?

'We are finding that more people are using public transport in our cities,' says Richard De Cani, UKMEA Planning Leader at Arup (@ArupGroup), a global design and engineering firm that has been involved with in high-profile projects like High Speed 2 and Crossrail. 'They are using their cars less, so we have to look at new ways of keeping them moving.'

City planners, technology companies and automotive manufacturers are busy reacting to the current trends by developing, producing and implementing new forms of public transport.

Car sharing schemes, such as ZipCar and Drive Now, are already proving popular in UK cities, where car ownership is perhaps less practical due to a lack of parking spaces, while Audi is set to offer an app-based car rental service next year.

Electric car sharing platforms are also set to explode, with the recent news that the current government plans to ban all petrol and diesel cars from UK roads by the year 2030. 

‘Electrification is really interesting,' says De Cani. 'As long as the investment in infrastructure continues, we could start to see buses going electric, and potentially using inductive charging as they travel the roads.'

With electric cars looking to play a major role in the future of transportation, not only could there be a change in how cars are powered but there could be vast differences in car design all together.

Luke Miles, Founder and Director at New Territory, a company that has assisted with future transport projects, claims our concept of ownership will change completely in the future.

He believes that as we begin to use autonomous on-demand transport, we will look towards experiences rather than physical things. 

'In the future, spaces will be less singular and rigid in their design,' he says. 'It means that the future transport environment will be built around the notion of inherent flexibility – conforming to you rather than forcing you to conform to it.'

New technology, such as self-driving vehicles, could see an explosion in Uber-style taxi services that can travel further for less, while super high-speed rail – like Elon Musk's Hyperloop technology – could negate the need for a car and signal the death of the road trip.

All of the above is subject to change, but current trends suggest car ownership is slowing. Have we fallen out of love with the car? Only time will tell. 

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