Traffic levels are set to grow again in the coming years following a decade of near flat-lining, with rural and strategic roads seeing the largest rise, according to Whitehall analysis.
While growth in road traffic has been slowing in recent decades, the Department for Transport (DfT) anticipates levels could soon begin to grow again as the population continues to rise and trends such as declining company car use, rising costs and falling incomes reverse or stop having an impact on vehicle use.
However traffic growth is likely to continue at a slower rate in coming years, matching the 1% annual expansion seen before the recession.
This slower growth has been linked to rising numbers of people living in cities and urban areas, which offer access to different modes of transport yet more limited road capacity. Traffic on urban A roads is thought to have remained at the same level between 2013 and 1993.
However continued strong growth is expected on rural roads and the Strategic Route Network, with a lack of alternative modes of transport remaining a contributing factor. England’s motorways and largest A-roads have seen traffic grow by 14% since 2003.
Yet the DfT said it remained ‘uncertain’ about the future behaviour of the younger groups of the population, which could significantly impact on future growth in road traffic. While it is expected that rising employment rates and incomes alongside falling costs would encourage young people to drive more, the department warned ‘if current habits become ingrained this may hold back the growth in car use’.
The economic recession saw traffic volumes fall, meaning use of all vehicle types in 2013 was only 0.4% higher than in 2003.
Yet the latest indications suggest all motor vehicle traffic increased by 2.2% in the third quarter of 2014 in comparison to the same period in the preceding year.
Introducing the Understanding the drivers of road travel report, Amanda Rowlatt, director of strategy and analysis at the DfT, said: ‘There have been big changes in how we use our roads over time, and will be further changes in the future. The aggregate figures are striking - after decades of strong growth the total distance travelled has plateaued in the last decade.
‘Growth will resume - income, driving costs, and the location of where people live and work are major determinants of the volume of road travel, and these are expected to drive up car use over time.’
DfT figures for traffic growth have been criticised by senior figures in the sector such as Stephen Joseph OBE of the Campaign for Better Transport, who recently told Transport Network it was a 'myth' that as people get richer they travel more.
'That is increasingly not being borne out anywhere in the developed world actually,' he said.