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Motorists prefer traffic jams to public transport

More than half of all motorists would rather take the chance of being stuck in a traffic jam than use public transport.

And opposition towards local road charging schemes aimed at cutting congestion has hardened over the past eight years.

These are amongst the key findings of ‘The Congestion Challenge’, a report summarising a new survey on car use and congestion, published today by the RAC Foundation and Ipsos MORI.

The report reveals the public appear to have resigned themselves to a congested, low-performance future. They remain unconvinced about alternatives to the car, and are generally unsupportive of ways to reduce congestion unless these are paid for out of the ‘public purse’. Additional charges for travel into town centres and on motorways, no matter what the caveats, are unpopular.

The survey found:

* 53% of drivers say they would rather risk being stuck in a traffic jam than take public transport.

* Though at the same time 77% support increasing the number and frequency of buses as a way of tackling traffic growth.

* 41% of drivers consider congestion to be a serious problem in their local area, a figure that has fallen from 63% in 1999.

* Yet 61% of drivers think congestion will rise over the next five years.

* 44% of drivers oppose any form of congestion charge for driving into the centre of towns and cities even if the money is spent on improving local transport. That compares with 32% in 2001.

* Support for such congestion charging schemes has fallen from 54% to 41% over the same period.

As for alternatives to driving, just over three out of ten drivers think it likely they will use public transport to make a journey currently made by car over the next year. Despite Government rhetoric about improving public transport fewer than three in ten people are optimistic about the future of train and bus services, with the majority believing performance will stay constant or worsen.

Professor Stephen Glaister, Director of the RAC Foundation says: “Over time people have come to regard congestion as less of an issue. But this flies in the face of the fact that congestion is increasing, so the depressing reality must be that motorists have become resigned to it. The public are also extremely pessimistic about what they expect from tomorrow’s transport system. This is an indictment of the politicians who have repeatedly failed to tackle it in a meaningful way.”

“People are reliant on their cars and although there is widespread support for improvements in public transport, only a minority say they would switch to it in the near future.”

“It is apparent that radical approaches to easing congestion will be difficult for politicians to sell to a sceptical population. This was proved in Manchester where there was an overwhelming rejection of a local congestion charging scheme. But as MPs on the Transport Select Committee recognised last week, doing nothing is not an option and some sort of national scheme might be necessary. It is the job of politicians to convince those understandably wary motorists of the benefits. They must not shy away from the challenge just because it is hard.”

“However almost three quarters of motorists do back the widening of existing motorways and 65% support variable speed limits on motorways to keep traffic flowing smoothly. Ministers have a duty to properly fund the Highways Agency so it can deliver these policies.”

“There will be increasing pressure to reduce car use to help meet climate change objectives. Managing demand has a part to play, but the survey shows over three quarters of drivers would find it difficult to adjust to life without a car. It might be an unpalatable truth for some but cars are the true public transport – they transport most of the people, most of the time. The challenge is to make vehicles smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient, not eradicate them.”

Ben Marshall, Research Director of Ipsos MORI and report co-author says: “Our new survey for the RAC Foundation provides further evidence of the pre-eminence of the car over other forms of transport. Most of us either drive or are driven in a car during the course of an average day.”

“The survey shows that while concerns about congestion are less pronounced that they were a decade ago, 41% of drivers now consider it to be a serious local problem. And there is a very strong sense things will only get worse.”

“There is scepticism about alternatives to the car. More than four in five – 84% – of those drivers who say they are personally affected by congestion say they couldn’t adjust to life without their car. And 53% of drivers would rather be stuck in a traffic jam than have to get public transport.”

“This poses significant difficulties for policy-makers and politicians. According to our survey, the ‘congestion challenge’ could be even tougher than it once was; we have found a declining sense among the public that congestion is a problem, plus growing public distaste for flagship policy solutions like congestion charging.”

“Perhaps the biggest challenge facing policy-makers and politicians is what to do next. In particular, should public opinion be followed, or led? Who should do this, and how?”

‘The Congestion Challenge: A Review of Public Attitudes to Car Use and Congestion’ (2009) will be available on both the RAC Foundation website ( and Ipsos MORI website (

The report is based on an Ipsos MORI survey involving 995 face-to-face in-home interviews with a representative sample of British adults aged 16+ with fieldwork undertaken 12-16 June 2009.