In Britain today, it ain’t easy being green (Part 1)

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As was so eloquently put into words by Kermit the Frog – the one who eats flies and dates a pig – ‘It ain’t easy being green’. 

Kermit was musing about the web of constraints on a frog’s life-opportunities, but to judge from an evidence base that is increasingly difficult to ignore, he may as well have been talking about the fate of the ‘green’ – young adults – in Britain today.  And, intriguingly, transport is the canary in the coal mine.

So what has happened?

There is an ongoing high-profile public debate (‘high-profile’ in transport policy circles, if nowhere else) regarding the ‘Peak Car’ theory, which is based on the straightforward observation that car-driving no longer seems to be growing. 

For many decades, if you told me the year’s GDP figures I could give you a pretty good guess of that year’s traffic growth.  This relationship has now broken down, so it seems (see Figure 13 here).  Put aside the current economic turbulence; from the late 1990s the economy grew at a sustained rate of 3% or so, year-on-year, right up to 2007.  But car use stagnated.

Actually, on examination it turns out the overall stabilisation in car-driving masks a number of sharply-divergent trends that we highlighted recently in research lead-sponsored by the RAC Foundation (Executive Summary here). 

Women in middle-age, and older men and women, are driving more and more.  This isn’t the case for middle-aged men, and we have a bit of arcane fiscal-policy to thank for that: a series of reforms over a decade ago to company car taxation. 

The genuinely perplexing bit is what’s happening to young adults, and particularly young men.  How much they drive has fallen very sharply – a drop of nearly half since the mid-1990s, a shift it is fair to characterise as both astonishing and unprecedented.  (It’s rather more complicated to say whether it’s good or bad news).

But when we peel back the lid on the GDP numbers, as we did in last December’s On the Move (Fig 5.2) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies recently confirmed in rich detail, something surprising emerges.  Economic growth has been distributed, shall we say, unevenly. 

When Britain’s GDP was growing at an apparently-healthy clip, young people were actually in a ‘Quiet Recession’ – a ‘recession’ unseen by anyone focusing just on the headline GDP growth figure.  Young men’s real income fell 6% from 2001 to 2007, and young women’s by 4%.  Meanwhile, men and women in their 50s saw their incomes grow by 8% and 10% respectively.  Needless to say, the economic instability since 2007 has been least kind to young adults.

Why has this happened – theories have been proposed by the shedload, but the fact is there is little credible analysis providing evidence of which factors matter the most, and which are just red herrings. 

So young people’s lives are becoming increasingly financially-tenuous, and this should concern all of us.  It all sounds a bit Mediterranean.  With these macro-trends in mind, it is somewhat less-surprising that they are driving less.

Part 2 will continue this discussion of Young Adults’ changing lifestyles and travel-patterns, later in July.

Scott Le Vine, AICP is a research associate in transport systems at Imperial College London.  This entry is cross-posted on Planetizen and the RAC Foundation blog.

Scott Le Vine, AICP is a research associate in transport systems at Imperial College London.
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