In charts: car use back to pre-Covid levels in UK but public transport lags behind

Data reveals how Britain's mobility habits fluctuated during the pandemic

Traffic information signs read "Stay Local, Stay Safe, Save Lives" above the M90 on the Queensferry Crossing near Edinburgh following the easing of Scotland's lockdown restrictions to allow far greater freedom outdoors. Picture date: Friday April 2, 2021. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images)
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The percentage of cars on UK roads is just 3 per cent below pre-pandemic levels , Apple Mobility Trends data showed.

Walkers were also out more in recent weeks, and the percentage of those making journeys on foot is now only 11 per cent lower than in January 2020.

Public transport lags behind, however, with 31 per cent fewer people opting to share their travelling space with others.


"I think it's unsurprising to see overall car usage across the UK back to pre-Covid levels," said Ben Foulser, head of mobility at KPMG.

He cited the recent loosening of coronavirus restrictions as instrumental in getting people back behind the wheel.

"People wanted to get out and about over the Easter holiday period.

"When you tell people they can go and see friends and family in the garden, they will do it – and in the majority of cases they will drive there."

But Mr Foulser conceded that the trend began in January when lockdown was still in full swing.

"I think part of it will be increased confidence in travelling," he said, which he ascribed to the UK's vaccination programme and a feeling that the public's actions are less scrutinised by authorities than they were last year.

More people back in cars and fewer on public transport certainly bodes well for an under-the-pump automotive industry and the wider economy.

"In the end, there needs to be some sort of normality or people will question why they still have cars," said Steve Young, managing director of automotive analysts ICDP.

The pairing of a resurgence in car use and the UK's commitment to banning sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030 is incompatible. The importance of public transport use reviving is manifest.

The next few months will be telling as to whether it remains in the Covid doldrums or makes a recovery, Mr Young said.

Even in London, where public transport infrastructure is sprawling and comprehensive, Apple data showed that throughout the pandemic levels of use fell well below pre-pandemic norms.


Mr Foulser is optimistic that public transport will recover but said that the government must embark on a PR campaign to reassure people that it is "a clean and appropriate way of getting around".

He raised an important caveat about the Apple data, which is based on requests to Apple Maps software: many people making regular journeys on public transport do not require it.

This could explain why in the first few months of 2020 there was a spike in the percentage of people walking as they became accustomed to new routes using neither cars nor public transport.

Apple data also revealed the challenges of national policymaking when trends across the UK's regions differ so markedly.

In Glasgow car use currently exceeds pre-Covid levels by 6 per cent.


Compare this with Bristol where it is 19 per cent below normal.


Mr Foulser believes such disparities can be assigned to a combination of employment and demographic characteristics.

"Cities like London have big services industries where people can work from home a lot more, unlike in Glasgow, where there is more manual industry forcing people to go work."

But whether in London or Glasgow, Mr Foulser is clear on the challenge faced by the UK government: getting people to share transport again.

"You can't sustain low levels of public transport use on a revenue basis – the taxpayer can't sustain it."

The UK's secession from the EU is also a factor.

"Given Brexit, we need to think in terms of freeing up road space for logistics which need to be as efficient as possible," he said.