Embracing the alternatives this World Car Free Day

22 September 2022
Embracing the alternatives this World Car Free Day

A blog by Paul Tuohy, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport. A version of this blog was first published by Smart Transport.

We live in a world where the car is king; most households in the UK own one – many own more than one – our homes are designed around the car, even our shops, workplaces and leisure facilities are designed to be driven to. Where there’s space to put a car park, there’ll be a car park, and it’s only in more densely packed urban areas where space is at a premium that planners have to defer to public transport as the main transport link.

But by placing the car at the centre of our society we have created a world where car ownership is often a necessity and car dependency is causing economic, social and environmental consequences we urgently need to address.

Back in 2020 we published a report, Transport deserts: The absence of transport choice in England’s small towns. The term ‘transport deserts’ was something we had coined to describe places where public transport had all but disappeared and the car was allowed to rule unopposed. Our report attempted to find out just how big a problem this was and what it meant for people living in these areas. What we found was that more than half of small towns in the south west and north east of England (the two areas the report focused on) had such bad transport connectivity that they are considered to be ‘transport deserts’ or were at imminent risk of becoming one. That meant that nearly one million people (975,227) who lived in these towns had no option for convenient and affordable public transport. They risked being cut off from basic services if they didn’t have access to a car, reducing people’s access to employment and education; impacting on people’s health and wellbeing; reducing people’s independence; and restricting people’s social activities.

In a more recent study we did for the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for ‘Left Behind’ Neighbourhoods and Local Trust we looked at the link between poor connectivity and ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods – those neighbourhoods that rank in the top ten per cent most deprived on the national Index of Multiple Deprivation and are located primarily on the edge of post-industrial towns and cities across the North and Midlands and in coastal areas around England. Unsurprisingly we found that routine travel was more difficult in these areas due to poor public transport connections – three quarters (74 per cent) had no rail station and more than a third of bus services in these areas had disappeared in the last decade – preventing those without a car from accessing jobs or public services.

So the link between lack of transport options and reduced economic opportunities is clear, but car dependency not only works to exclude those without a car it also traps those with one. In a society that encourages car use it’s hardly surprising that people drive. Last year, almost one in five (17 per cent) journeys under a mile was taken by car, and more than three out of five (67 per cent) under five miles were by car. It’s these trips that are often the easiest to replace with an alternative, providing one exists. One way to do this would be to embrace the concept of 15-minute neighbourhoods, places where residents can access most, if not all, of their needs within a short walk or bike ride from their home. Obviously, this concept is slightly more difficult to implement in rural areas, but not impossible, and certainly more attainable if you add in a public transport option.

With lockdown still fresh in our collective memories, one of the benefits that people continue to talk about was discovering their local area on foot or by bike for perhaps the first time. With the clamour to ‘return to normal’ let’s not forget that some changes which were forced upon us as a result of the pandemic actually had a positive impact on our health and wellbeing beyond the short-term protection from Covid, and had a positive impact on the planet.

This Car Free Day the Campaign for Better Transport team have been documenting how we leave the car at home and use public transport in our everyday lives…

Silviya, our Director of Policy and Research, does her weekly food shop by foot with a quick mile-round trip. After general leisure, weekly grocery shopping is the most common reason people use their cars.


Silviya brings her shopping home


We also make for pretty sustainable commuters, CEO Paul gets to and from the station using his fold away Brompton bike, while our Campaigns Manager Michael commutes on the tube.


Paul's fold-up bike on the train


Michael at the Tube station


When it comes to travelling car free for leisure, Alice uses the overground to get to and from her yoga practice, and Victoria, who lives in Leeds, uses the Settle-Carlisle Railway to go hiking at the weekends, stopping off at the Ribblehead viaduct.


Alice at the station


Victoria in the Dales


Unfortunately, not all of us can travel car-free all the time. Jess‘s nearest train station was closed in 1956, making it difficult for her to travel car free.


Jess at the disused station


Without access to reliable public transport, rural communities must rely on cars or risk being cut off from basic services. Investing in alternative transport in these communities will reduce people’s reliance on cars, improving connectivity and the environment.

This World Car Free Day let’s all try and leave the car at home and plan our journeys differently. You never know, you may just discover there’s a better way to get around.


Norman on a bike

Director of External Affairs, Norman, on his bike.