London’s first Car Free Day – which takes over the city this Sunday – has got me thinking about cars and Londoners’ relationship with them.
Owning a car can be a symbol of status for some, a practical necessity for others or an essential mobility tool for many disabled people.
According to Transport for London data, well over half of London households own at least one car, and there has been little change in car ownership in the last ten years, down only 4 per cent from a peak of 60 per cent in 2008/09.
The geography of car ownership
Perhaps unsurprisingly, car ownership is more common in outer London and areas which are less well connected by public transport. Bromley and Croydon are the car capitals of the city; the two boroughs with the most vehicles. But some inner London boroughs (Wandsworth and Lewisham) each have more cars than some outer London boroughs (such as Barking and Dagenham, Haringey and Kingston) – perhaps a sign of affluence, but strange, when you consider that inner city areas have dense public transport networks, making owning a car unnecessary, even costly.
This begs the question how these cars are used. Commuting is not the most common reason for driving. Car is the usual mode of travel to work for only 29 per cent of Londoners, as opposed to 67 per cent of the England average. So is it the occasional shopping trips and weekend days out with the family?
Not surprisingly, most of the time cars are not actually being used. It is estimated that the average car sits parked at least 95 per cent of the time. So where are these cars stored when not in use? My current project examining parking has shed some light on this.
Greedy for space
There are in the region of 3 million cars altogether in London. Transport for London data shows that of these 43 per cent are parked on-street (at the kerbside) and the rest off-street (in parking lots, garages and driveways). However, there is a big difference across the capital. While only a third of cars are parked on-street in outer London, in inner London – with much denser housing and few homes with private garages – two thirds of cars are parked at the kerbside.
What does this mean in terms of space? Data from AppyWay, who are supporting our parking project shows that there are over one million paid resident and visitor bays in London, taking up over 5,000 kilometres of kerbside space. To put this into context, this is roughly the distance from the UK to the US across the Atlantic! And this figure does not include kerbspace which is not controlled and free to park at any time – which is the majority in many outer boroughs – or off-street parking.
Just imagine if this space could be used differently. If this were residential land, each parking bay in central London – where land value is really high – would be worth tens and hundreds of thousands of pounds. It has been reported that parked cars in London take up land worth £172 billion, which could accommodate an estimated 80,000 homes.
Claiming back public space from cars
Not underestimating the potential of converting parking lots into homes, it would be impossible to do this with kerbside spaces. But it could be used for many other valuable purposes, such as green, community or play spaces (a growing move towards parklets has shown what is possible), as well as cycling infrastructure and parking. Surely the 60 per cent of inner London households that do not own a car would place much higher value on these uses than on parking. Is this not public land that we should all have equal right to?
Car Free Day gives us an opportunity to picture what our streets could look like if they were less dominated by cars. We will see our streets free from traffic and taken up by children playing and communities coming together. What if this happened at the kerbside too? Freeing up even a small fraction of the 5,000 kilometres taken up by parked cars would mean that it could be reclaimed for the benefit of all more permanently – not only on Car Free Day.
The good news is that many car journeys can be replaced by public transport, walking and cycling. As an example, there are nearly a million journeys every day currently made by car in the capital that would take less than 10 minutes for most people to walk.
The next generation is already shifting behaviour and the take-up of driving licences among young people has declined. Those of us that are no longer in the “young” category know that, once you have kids, it becomes much harder to transport the whole family and enjoy trips further away from home without a car. But the shared economy provides alternatives to car ownership. Car clubs are now widely spread and provide a convenient and more cost-effective solution for less frequent drivers. Even rented cars and private cabs are a more space efficient means of travel, as they do not sit parked most of the time.
If London is going to become a car-free city, it will require changes from everyone.