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blog: Car Ownership: What can we learn from 2021 census data?

Author: Ben Sankey

The year 2021 already seems like a long time ago but the results from the 2021 Census have just started to filter through. While the headline figures for local authorities can be found on the ONS website, in this blog post, I will take you through some of the numbers that matter most to the transport industry.

With the vast array of demographics available through the census, I have chosen to look at which demographics affect levels of car ownership across the country. Although it is tempting to use some of the unique demographic categories, such as finding out if local authorities with high levels of holiday home ownership (TS055 – Purpose of second address) are prone to higher levels of car ownership, I thought it would be best to stick with the things that we know influence car ownership such as age and distance travelled to work.

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A Recap

My initial review of the Census data can be found here, this provided a first look into some of the changes in car ownership levels since 2011. The majority of local authorities saw increases in levels of car ownership and although I initially took this news as negative, I did overlook the fact that in the last few years there has been a massive increase in electric vehicle registration. In 2022, pure battery EVs accounted for 16.6% of all new car registrations with petrol registrations only amounting to 42.3%. Therefore, the news of an increase of car ownership overall is not all ‘doom and gloom’ as electric vehicles can provide a way for us to still drive sustainably, although the extent to which may only be apparent in years to come.

Back to the Statistics

Car registrations in 2022 were at their lowest for 30 years which shows change is upon us. Some areas might be more susceptible to car usage due to some social-economic factors, for this reason, the first demographic I decided to analyse was age. Age can be a determent for many social-economic factors such as income, housing, political outlook and much more. The general assumption in this case is that younger people tend to have less money, live in areas of higher population density (for employment reasons) and are generally more aware of the climate crisis.

The “Average Age v Car Ownership” graph below shows this assumption to be true, as areas with older people tend to have higher levels of car ownership. The relationship is fairly linear but also quite sporadic, mainly due to the boroughs of London having significantly lower levels of car ownership than anywhere else. The graph is colour coded to represent London (Inner and Outer) as the levels of car ownership in London are significantly different to the rest of England & Wales.

As a comparison for the oldest and youngest local authorities, Tower Hamlets in London has an average age of 32.5 with a car ownership level of 33.6%. By comparison, North Norfolk has an average age of 50.1 and a car ownership level of 85.4%.

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Distance Travelled to Work

The next statistic I chose to focus on was the average distance travelled to work. In general, shorter distances travelled make travel options such as walking, cycling or taking the bus more attractive and in a lot of cases quicker than using a car. The “Average Distance Travelled to Work v Car Ownership” graph below shows this trend to be the case, with lower distances travelled being related to lower levels of car ownership, perhaps a more linear association than age as well. The shortest distance travelled to work is 1.6km for the City of London which has a car ownership level of 22.8%. By comparison, Powys has one of the longest distances travelled to work at 12.4km and a car ownership level of 86.9%.

Within the distance travelled to work data, there is one clear outlier though. The Isles of Scilly have an average distance travelled to work of 18km. Scilly has relatively low levels of car ownership at 58.2% and the island is only 4km wide. Therefore, this large distance travelled to work may be because of something else. People living on Scilly may have to travel outside of Scilly to get to work which may skew the average distance travelled as the closest other region of land is Cornwall (at least 40km away), therefore it has been classed as an anomaly.

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Deprivation Levels

For levels of deprivation, the relationship seems to be quite scattered as shown in the “Levels of Deprivation v Car Ownership” graph below. The theory here is that areas with low levels of deprivation will be wealthier and have more disposable income to be able to afford cars, leading to high levels of car ownership. There does seem to be a vague trend here, Blaenau Gwent is at 0.98 for Level of Deprivation and the car ownership level is 77%. By Comparison, Wokingham is at 0.49 for Level of Deprivation and the car ownership level is 91%.

What is also interesting to note, is how London has an even spread of deprivation similar to the rest of England & Wales even though income levels are considerably higher in London. This shows how deprivation still exists in London as the cost of living there is much higher, meaning families on higher incomes may still not be able to afford a car.

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Household Type

Household types can affect car ownership levels mainly due to levels of population density and parking space.

The table below shows a summary of the factors that affect how attractive owning a car is in these areas. Detached households tend to provide the most car-centric communities, then Semi-detached households, then Terraced households and finally flats provide the least demand for a car.

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This theory appears to be correct as shown in the table below which indicates higher levels of car ownership for the housing that is most suited for motor vehicles. By a stretch, the most common type of housing found in local authorities in England & Wales is Semi-detached and Detached which might answer the question as to why the majority of the country is so dependent on cars to get around. It is important for new development planning projects to consider the type of housing being built and also the population density when trying to achieve sustainable trip rate goals.

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Combining the Data

Combining all these demographics together means you can work out which areas of England & Wales are likely going to struggle to reduce car dependence in their area in future years. Unsurprisingly the top five areas that have demographics that restrict car dependence are all in Inner London, which shows the great potential these areas have to promote other forms of sustainable transport. On the other hand, the top five areas that facilitate car dependence are predominately rural and have very low population densities.

Top 5 areas with demographics that prevent car dependence

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Top 5 areas with demographics that facilitate car dependence

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The latest census data when broken down shows us there are a variety of demographics that can affect car ownership levels. Local authorities and the Government could use this information to implement schemes effectively on a local basis that affect car usage.

Demographic data may also have the answer as to the potential barriers people face when trying to switch away from using their car. ITP’s wide variety of teams are able to utilise this information to look at the wider picture and suggest unique ways to combat these barriers in order to improve the uptake of sustainable modes of transport.

To find out about these projects visit the project pages of our website here.


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