Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The census data is absolutely undeniable: Massive rise in car-free households, now the majority all across inner London. Yet London borough councils persist in designing our roads for cars not for bikes and public transport, in direct conflict with what's actually happening.

Evening Standard is absolutely right.
Time for local councils to react to demographic change
& give cyclists their fair share of the road
I've spent some of this evening reviewing the 2011 census data published earlier today, comparing it to the results from 2001 (see part 2 on ONS website)

It makes for a very interesting story. In fact, it's a primetime, can't-miss-it kind of story. And that is, that as far as inner London is concerned, the private car is well and truly on its way out.

In 2001 in Southwark, 51% of households had no car or van. By 2011, that number was up to 58%. In Hackney, the story is even more dramatic - 65% of households are now car-free, up from 56% in 2001. Lambeth - 58% of households are car-free, up from 51% in 2001. Even in a car-centric borough like Wandsworth, 45% now have no car, up from 41% in 2001. And Westminster, the borough which brings you free car parking all weekend and which is viciously anti-cycling, a whopping 63% of households don't own a car, up from 57% in 2001. In Lambeth, it's now 58% car-free households, up from 51% in 2001. Even Kensington & Chelsea households are now 56% car-free, up from 51% in 2001.

The data is absolutely blatant. Inner London is ditching the car. All over inner London in fact. Both the rich parts and the poor parts, the Labour-voting, LibDem-voting and Conservative-voting parts. You simply can't miss the fact that inner London is going car-free.

And yet London councils, like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea are clinging on to the mistaken belief that London needs to be designed around the private motor car.

Kensington & Chelsea issued a local transport plan in late 2010 that proposes its streets should be designed almost exclusively around the needs of private car ownership: "Our approach to cycling is to encourage a safe mix with other traffic – our busy road network and densely populated area mean that it is not practical to allocate road space specifically to cyclists. Instead, we focus on providing a smooth, debris–free riding surface, cycle parking and increasing the permeability of the local road network." Get that? The majority of Kensington & Chelsea households are car-free yet the council still regards it as "not practical" to devote space to cycling instead of driving and promotes an ideology that would have lorries, buses, taxis and people on bicycles all jostling for position on four lane highways.

I think what the census data is showing is that being 'car-free' is not a left-wing thing, it's not a right-wing thing. It's not a Labour borough issue. It's not a LibDem or Conservative borough issue either. It's happening all across inner London. Households are going car-free. And most of the boroughs are way, way too slow to realise that their residents are looking for alternatives.

The bicycle is one of those alternatives. It is one that has been woefully underfunded for decades. As a transport form, it needs an injection of concerted effort by local boroughs. Those boroughs are running out of excuses and they need to create networks for people to travel by road but not by private car. Especially in places like Westminster and Wandsworth where the provision to cycle instead of drive is pathetic and has been largely ignored by anti-cycling councillors for years.

That has to change. The demographics say as much.


  1. Excellent post.

    This is yet another reason for local boroughs to start helping dismantle the numerous one-way systems and gyratories that currently choke Central London (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/bike-blog/2011/jul/21/london-gyratories-cyclists).

  2. The official data explains why there is such a strong and determined lobby in favour of better provision for cyclists – it's in the interests of the majority of Londoners.

  3. Swap the RBKC statement around:
    "Our approach to driving is to encourage a safe mix with other traffic – our busy and densely populated area mean that it is not practical to allocate road space specifically to cars."
    That's how it should read with the majority of residents not owning cars.

  4. Nice to see London catching up with Glasgow (35% of Households own a car - last survey), but we also have a car-centric thinking from Councillors and Officers, and sucha over provision of city centre car parking that it cannot be filled up by the roads network at peak times (traffic flows seize up). We get roads jammed solidly for 2-3 hours per day as those who live outside the city pollute with noise and congested streets as well as emissions the neighbourhoods of those who live in the city.

  5. I agree with the overall sentiment. Westminster is not free all weekend for parking. Some areas are only free on Sunday. And it's important to remeber that buses and delivery vans also use the roads.

    And as a Hackney resident, the cycling provision here is no better than Westminster. They never enforce cars parked in cycle lanes, and there are hardly any dedicated cycle lanes provided by the borough. And yet they keep on boasting about cycling, without actually having done anything much to help on the roads.

    One of the worst boroughs is Newham. The Bow flyover has to be the worst junction in London - for cyclists or pedestrians.

  6. @anonymous: When a parked car takes up such a high percentage of a necessarily limited and finite road-surface-space why should car parking in Central London ever be free?

  7. Some years ago, before the decline in car ownership evidenced by the 2011 census, I knew an American lawyer working for her firm’s office in London. Even back then, her remuneration was probably north of a million a year, and she lived in a nice town house just off the Kings Road.

    She didn’t own a car. She simply didn’t see the point: the house didn’t have its own parking, and a property which did would have cost considerably more; parking on the street was a complete pain; she had easy access to an excellent public transport network, and if she needed a car at the weekend, for example to go on a trip to the country, there are car rental companies. Clearly she was not priced out of car ownership, she just didn’t see it as sensible use of resources.

    My guess is that while obviously a fair proportion of those inner borough households without cars are so lacking because they simply can’t scrape the money together, even if they want to, another significant proportion are like my lawyer friend. It doesn’t necessarily mean they cycle – although I reckon quite a few of them do, like my boss, on the board of a London Big 4 accounting firm, who commutes on his Pinarello.

    So, I am not really quite sure who, exactly, the borough councils or the Mayor are genuflecting to in their eagerness to smooth the passage of private cars. People driving through from one boundary to the other, perhaps, or coming in from outer suburbs and unwilling to rub shoulders with hoi polloi on the train.

    I think however that you are perhaps being a tad unkind to RBKC. True that they are not creating dedicated space for bicycles, and some of their recent streetscape developments, like Kensington High St, are actively cycle-hostile, like Cheapside in the City. They are however making some moves towards one useful thing – permeability, as their statement says. They are opening up cycle contraflows on one-ways, and crowd-sourcing ideas for new ones. The City of London has done something similar, but is further advanced than RBKC, and is also evaluating a borough-wide 20mph zone in terms which suggest to me that they want the conclusion to be that 20mph should be implemented.

    The one really toxic borough in Central London is Westminster. Where to start? The re-design of the Pall Mall/Piccadilly gyratory on Cheapside/Ken High St lines, with lane narrowing, pinch points and cyclists as rolling speed humps; the parking free-for-all which is simply not replicated in surrounding boroughs, stridently lobbied for by a cabal of Evening Standard journos and billionaire restaurateurs who succeeded in witch-hunting out the former council leader; virtually nil in the way of cycle permeability/motor impermeability measures on any of the borough’s one-way streets, contrast with Camden’s proposed closure of Earlham St; no segregated facilities, with existing Camden facilities at Torrington Place simply vanishing at the border, and, unusually; an equally toxic Labour opposition group in the council which seems to argue even more stridently in favour of motorists than the ES does.

    Arguably there has been some success with Boris, in that he has tripled the cycling budget, although it remains to be seen if that money is spent wisely. Time methinks to broaden the front to Westminster.

    1. >So, I am not really quite sure who, exactly, the borough councils or the Mayor are ?>genuflecting to in their eagerness to smooth the passage of private cars.

      A few, pretty well organised, lobby groups - the taxi and mini-cab firms, those restaurant owners, and, in many cases I suspect people (the press old guard, Clarkson) who don't actually live in London and commute from the home counties by train but who can't envisage being able to live without a car in the suburbs and are unable to countenance that it could be possible or desirable in the city.

      Whereas the majority who don't own cars (or who own but use as little as possible) are very a very disparate group without a strong voice.

    2. Yes all of these but look behind them too. Who do the press rely on for financial survival? Not on your quid to buy a copy - the Standard doesn't even get that - but the advertisers. Know who the biggest single spender of advertising dollars is, worldwide and in the UK?

      You guessed it - the road industry lobby. Manufacturers, retailers, oil companies/fuel suppliers, parts suppliers, insurance conpanies, the RAC (even the AA although they deserve credit for their pro-cycle stance).

      Like any other large dominant enterprise - think supermarkets - being the leader is not enough. They have to wipe out competition. They cannot sustain the model of continuous growth any other way, and without continuous growth, businesses which operate on that model go bust. Just as most car companies have done, at least once in their histories, to be rescued by your - and my - tax money.

  8. When most cyclists are so uncourteous to other road users is it surprising that we get the short end of the stick.

    1. Maybe if there was more room on the roads for us we wouldn't feel so defensive......

    2. "most cyclists are so uncourteous to other road users"


    3. And it is the good manners and charm of motorists that mean they get all the funding and road space.

  9. My first reaction is to congratulate TfL. Anyone who remember how things used to be on public transport and the scale of change brought by TfL has no choice; the frequency, reliability, information connected with service, and the sheet range of public transport options is quite miraculous.

    Oh, and the congestion charge.

  10. It's interesting to see the figures but it's not just car-free households that cycle. I live in Southwark and I own a car. I travel mainly by cycle or public transport however at weekends (not everyone mind) when visiting friends and family in the suburbs or further afield, I drive (I note this is largely due to the fact weekend public transport is rubbish and the cost for two of us to travel to the Lake district on the train is more expensive than for us to drive even on super saver rates these days).

    Back to the point, I rarely drive in London. I hate it. I hate trying to get out of London when we are heading off on a longer trip. I would love to see more measures for cyclists. If that then meant people only used their cars when they absolutely had to - great!

    But I don't think the concentration should be just on central London. I grew up in Bexley and no one I know who lives there now cycles. Not even to the station. It seems daft as it would be quite easy to get around on a bike there and there is space for segregated cycle paths. But everyone drives. The retail parks and supermarkets are bedlam at the weekends and you can spend ages trying to get a parking space. The public transport out there isn't like what we have in central London so they only see cars as an alternative.

    A number of Bexley residents drive into London and because they expect to be able to drive everywhere because they can where they live, I suspect they are the ones calling on central boroughs to provide better car facilities as they work there. Therefore in order to help our cause and get better facilities, changes in mentality and road space allocation needs to happen London wide, not just centrally. If Bexley residents as an example felt they could get where they needed to get to easily enough by public transport or cycle in their own borough, why would they not feel they could do the same in central London?

    Just a thought.

  11. I thought the comment from a Glasgow resident was very interesting. There I am sure car ownership has been very low for years, but it is not reflected in any pro-bike or pro-pedestrian policy by the city. I don't think therefore we can expect low car ownership to automatically lead to councils "designing cars out" of cities. Catering better for bike and for walking is an independent policy decision which, if taken, will be taken taken on its own merits independent of car ownership levels. Car ownership in the Netherlands is very high, yet they have the best bike provision in the world. I think it is naive to expect any relationship between these things. Those who simply choose to have a car-free life do not necessarily view the world like cycling campaigners, and this is a fact that reflects back on local politicians. Conversely, as pointed out already, many car-users will actually agree with the objective of improving provision for bikes.

    I suspect the real reasons for the intransigence in many boroughs remain an out-dated view of the relationship between motor traffic and economic prosperity, and a simple lack of technical understanding of how effective cycle infrastructure works. The task is therefore to educate politicians in these things.

  12. Like most statistics, there is more to it than meets the eye. There has been a big growth in car club membership - I ditched my car between 2001 and 2011 (which I used about once a month) and joined zipcar. As a cyclist I don't disagree with the need to improve our lot though.

  13. Great post, and some admirable number crunching that should henceforth be at the fingertips of every London cycle advocate. The key point is about a change in mindset. Once everyone gets that car use in London is declining - long-term, and irrevocably - all sorts of possibilities open up. For one thing, it blows RBKC's statement - "our busy road network and densely populated area mean that it is not practical to allocate road space specifically to cyclists" - right out of the water.

  14. This drop in car ownership is a testament to the strategy and work of Ken Livingstone and others (not many) who had the guts to implement policies around car restraint (congestion charge, parking control), improvements to London's streets, bus services, Underground and overground rail.

    I guess we can thank Boris for not having the wit to trash these achievements, but to realise he could ride the wave and placate the motoring lobby.

  15. What is the percent increase of car ownership since the last 20 years in the United States?