A more sustainable future is one with fewer private cars. During the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, road traffic dropped dramatically, allowing us to see how much richer a world with less traffic could be. Air quality improved, people were able to reclaim space to walk, cycle and play safely, wildlife prospered.
A permanent reduction in reliance on private cars could bring both those immediate benefits, and various positive downstream consequences. For example, precious urban space currently used for roads and car parks could be redeveloped for housing or parks, while increased use of active transport could lead to improved health outcomes.
Although the pandemic showed us what a post-car world could look like, it also pushed that goal further out of reach. Car use declined far less than public transport use during the first lockdown, and returned to pre-pandemic levels during the summer of 2020 while public transport usage remained at 40 – 60% of pre-pandemic levels [DfT, Transport use during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 2021]. This has had the effect of stalling growth in rail passenger miles, and exacerbating declines in bus travel. At the same time, early growth in cycling rates has not been sustained. This demonstrates how important it is to encourage long-term, sustained shifts in transport modes.
Humans are creatures of habit. If people have got used to taking the car during the pandemic (for entirely sensible reasons of avoiding social contact), they will be more likely to keep doing so, even when it is safe to return to public transport. The challenge, therefore, is twofold. First, how to nudge people out of their cars and towards public or active transport as we move beyond the pandemic, and second, how to sustain that shift over the longer term.