1. Transport
April 8, 2016updated 03 Aug 2023 2:30pm

Top Gear: Which British cities are most likely to drive to work?

By Jonn Elledge

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

So, already in this series, we’ve looked at which British cities had the most people who walked to work. We’ve looked at where most people cycle. And we’ve looked at where the largest proportion commuted by most public  transport.

One obvious omission from that sequence, though, is which cities’ residents are most likely to drive, so let’s do that now. Fire up the map-o-tron! 

Hover over a dot to get more information about it.

The first thing that leaps out at you is the range: residents of some British cities are more than twice as likely to commute by “private vehicle” (so, car) than those of others. In London, at one end of the scale, the relevant number is 34 per cent; in Telford it’s 77 per cent. 

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In compact ancient university towns (Oxford, Cambridge, York), the number of drivers is very low; the same is generally true in cities with decent commuter rail networks (Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow), though not in Manchester, with its trams. It’s pretty low in those towns that double as commuter suburbs for London, too; and northerners are more likely to drive than southerners or Scots.

This is just a snapshot, of course. These figures are drawn from the 2011 census. We’re now halfway to the next one, so things might have changed quite a lot. We can’t know.

What we can know, though, is how things changed between the last two censuses, in 2001 and 2011. And the picture is, well, mixed:

Click to expand.

We mentioned earlier in this series that public transport use was actually in decline in many British cities. This is the other side of that picture. There are 61 cities shown on this chart: between 2001 and 2011, the number of people who commuted by private vehicle was up in 29 of them and down in 32. 

As to which cities fall on which side of the divide, perhaps the most striking figures are at the top of the graph: in three of the four Scottish cities on the group, private vehicle use is way, way up, far more than in any other city. That group includes Glasgow, which has a pretty extensive public transport network. This is such a striking finding that it makes me wonder whether there’s some Scotland-specific change in the definition of “private vehicle” that took place in about 2005 – and if not, what on earth has been happening up there. (Our pals at the Centre for Cities are looking into this question now.)

At the other end of the scale, the cities where people have become less likely to drive tend to be the same ones they weren’t likely to drive in the first place: the university towns and London’s commuter zone. 

In fact, when you place the two maps – of what proportion of many people commuted by car in 2011, and how that number had changed over the previous decade – side by side, what is really striking is quite how similar they are.  

Click to expand.

With a few exceptions, in cities where lots of people drive, people have become more likely to do so – and vice versa.

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