Four wheels good, two legs bad

Transport and travel in the UK

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Since 1949 the total distance travelled by passengers on all modes of transport within Great Britain has increased by over 275%.

Where 60 years ago the average person would journey 4,600km around Britain in a year (the equivalent to Istanbul and back), today the figure is close to 13,000km (a round trip to Karachi).

It is the rise of the motor car that plays the central role in this story. During the 20th century, it went from being a seldom-seen toy of the rich to a necessity of everyday life. The 8,000 or so private cars licensed in the early years of the century multiplied to 2 million in 1949, 10 million in 1970, and 27m by 2012. Today, we travel four times as far as we did 60 years ago within the UK alone, thanks largely to the car.

As the popularity of the car has risen, so usage of other forms of transport has declined or stagnated. In particular bus and coach use has nearly halved since 1949, with privatisation in the 1980s doing little to address the downward trend. Another casualty over the last 60 years has been the bicycle. In the early 1950s, over 20bn passenger kilometres were travelled on bicycle: 476km per person per year. Today, the figure is closer to 5 billion, or 87km per person.

Like car transport, domestic air travel has become more affordable, though it still accounts for just 1% of passenger kilometres travelled in Britain.

Whether it’s the price of fuel or exasperation with traffic (we spend 10 days a year in our cars, on average, our love affair with the car seems to be coming to an end. From 1990, the rate of increase in car travel slowed down as the number of cars on the road approached one per household; and for the first time ever kilometres travelled by car fell between 2007 and 2008. Meanwhile, passenger kilometres travelled by rail have increased by over 60% since 1990.

Pedal to the metal
This chart shows the total distance travelled by people living in Britain in 1949 and 2010, broken down by mode of transport.

This chart shows the total distance travelled by people living in Britain in 1949 and 2010, broken down by mode of transport

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