I was doing the paper review on local radio this weekend, and one of the stories I picked up was this one from the Independent, as I’d not seen reported elsewhere: oil consumption has fallen by almost a fifth since the financial crisis.
Petrol and diesel use has dropped by 18% in the last five years, and it’s not just because cars are more efficient. 69% of drivers are making fewer journeys, so there is a behaviour change behind the statistics too. The main reason is the oil price. The cost of filling up has risen by 85% over the last decade.
The fall in oil consumption is good news – it also represents a fall in CO2 emissions, in car dependency, and in the trade deficit, since we have to import an increasing percentage of our oil. What we do with this news is quite important however, and there are different interpretations. Some groups, such as the Automobile Association, insist that the fall in driving is because of the recession. Once the economy picks up, people will start driving more. Demand will increase, and more roads must be built. The government also appears to hold this view, and is committed to a new programme of road building, supposedly to stimulate the economy.
On the other hand, the price of oil is never going to come down to what it was during Britain’s golden age of road travel in the 80s and 90s. It will remain high and volatile, and reducing our dependency on oil is eminently sensible. If the AA won’t see the limits of car travel (and their jobs depend on them not seeing it, to be fair), most ordinary people do. Car travel peaked in the mid nineties, and the number of journeys taken by car has declined by 7% since. It’s a gentle decline, but it predates the recession and hints at a cultural readjustment to a new normal. Another sign is the fall in young people learning to drive, or the 12% rise in cycling over the last decade. After declining steadily for forty years, rail travel turned a corner around 2000 and is now back to 1920s levels.
If we chose to, we could build on that second interpretation rather than the first. Instead of more roads and shackling ourselves to an ever-pricier finite commodity, we could be stimulating local economies and communities with 21st century urban transit systems. We could be building attractive and safe cycle routes, like London has done, that make bikes the fastest way to travel through the city. We could be developing the integrated transport systems that other countries in Europe have built, but that somehow elude us in Britain. Ultimately, the era of cheap oil is over and our travel patterns are changing.