UK Perspectives 2016: How we travel

With people travelling around 6,500 miles per year1 on average, transport is a fundamental part of daily living and, therefore, plays an important role in our economy.

The transport industry is a substantial greenhouse gas (GHG) emitter and, over time, has become an increasingly large energy consumer. This inevitably impacts the environment – as illustrated in Energy and Emissions in the UK.

This article in the UK Perspectives series presents some key statistics relating to how passenger transport has changed over time in Great Britain.

It is important to note there is likely to be subnational variation within the data, particularly between rural and urban areas. As transport policy in Northern Ireland is fully devolved, transport statistics for Northern Ireland are recorded separately.

1.Distance travelled by car has increased

Passenger transport by mode2 Great Britain, 1980 to 2014

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Since 1980, the total distance travelled has increased, predominantly due to increased travel via cars, vans and taxis. Between 1980 and 1990 growth was rapid; this then steadied until 2007, when the distance travelled leveled and then fell slightly to remain at around 770 billion passenger kilometres to 2013. In 2014 passenger kilometers travelled rose to 788 billion.

Distance travelled by rail has also risen, particularly in the last 20 years – the distance travelled in 2014 was more than double that in 1980 at 75 billion passenger kilometres.

The share of the distance travelled by cars, vans and taxis has remained fairly stable, and in 2014 were still by far the most used modes of transport, accounting for 83% of all passenger distance travelled in Great Britain. The number of licensed motor vehicles has continued to rise, increasing in every year but one, from 19 million in 1980 to an all-time high of 35.6 million in 20143.

Buses and coaches accounted for the second largest proportion of all distance travelled in 1980. However, distance travelled by buses and coaches has since declined and from 2001 rail was the mode of transport responsible for the second largest distance travelled in Great Britain.

2. Rail accounts for the most distance travelled on public transport

Passenger kilometres on public transport, Great Britain, 1985/86 to 2014/15

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In 1985/86 the largest proportion of distance travelled on public transport was by bus. However, by 2014/15 rail accounted for 63% of all passenger kilometres, over double that for buses (29%). Passenger distance travelled by light rail and tram, although relatively low (1.6 billion passenger kilometres in 2014/15) has increased fivefold since 1985/86. Distance travelled by underground was 10.9 billion passenger kilometres in 2014/15, an 82% increase since 1985/86.

3. Buses account for the majority of passenger journeys on public transport

Passenger journeys on public transport vehicles, Great Britain, 1985/86 to 2014/154

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While rail accounts for the most distance travelled by public transport, the highest number of all journeys on public transport in Great Britain in 2014/15 were via bus (62%).

The number of bus journeys in Great Britain outside of London has fallen by more than a third since 1985/86, while the number of bus journeys in London has doubled over the same period. Over half of all bus passenger journeys in England in 2014/15 occurred in London5 suggesting bus travel in London is an important driver of overall trends in Great Britain. In 2014/15 bus passenger journeys increased inside London and decreased outside of London.

Passenger journeys by rail in Great Britain have more than doubled since 1991/92, to 20% of public transport journeys in 2014/15. Journeys by light rail and tram, as well as the underground, have also risen in recent years; they were the highest ever in 2014/15, at 0.24 and 1.32 billion journeys respectively.

4. Air passenger numbers were four times greater in 2015 than in 1980

Air traffic: UK airports, 1991 to 2015

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Since 1991, the volume of passengers at UK airports has more than doubled – from 95 million to 251 million in 2015. The number of commercial aircraft take-offs and landings has also increased, from 1.4 million in 1991 to 2.2 million in 2015.

Compared with 58 million passengers in 1980, air passenger numbers in 2015 were over four times greater, and aircraft take-offs and landings more than double6. Following strong historic growth, air traffic fell during the recent economic downturn (2008 and 2009), as well as in 2010, coinciding with volcanic ash and severe winter weather disruption. Passenger numbers increased by 5.5% in 2015, reaching a record number and exceeding the previous peak in 2007. Commercial aircraft movements have remained fairly level since the economic downturn, suggesting the increase in passenger numbers could be due to increasing aircraft size and numbers of passengers per plane.

There were 75 million passengers at Heathrow airport in 2015, an increase of 1.5 million from 2014 and accounting for 30% of the total passengers at all UK airports. This was almost twice as many as Gatwick, the second largest UK airport (40 million)7.

5. Numbers of road accidents and casualties have fallen

Reported road accidents, Great Britain, 1980 to 2014

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The number of reported road traffic accidents decreased from 252,000 in 1980 to 146,000 in 2014, a reduction of almost 42%. This is despite the number of licensed motor vehicles having almost doubled since 1980. Road accidents decreased steadily from 2000 to 2013, but increased by 7,000 from 2013 to 2014.

The rise in road accidents in 2014 was the first increase since 1997 and is likely to be as a result of a combination of factors. Vehicle traffic levels increased by 2.4% between 2013 and 2014, the largest single year growth since 1996. Weather conditions may also have had a role – most months were considerably warmer than average and this is liable to have contributed to a higher number of accidents8.

6. The number of car occupant injuries in accidents has seen the greatest reduction

Killed or seriously injured from road accidents, Great Britain, 1980 to 2014

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The number of seriously injured casualties has fallen by nearly three quarters since 19809. In addition the number of fatalities from road accidents has fallen by 70%, from almost 6,000 in 1980 to under 2,000 in 2014. This is almost 80% lower than the worst peacetime toll of 7,985 road traffic deaths, recorded in 1966.

The number of people killed or seriously injured in road accidents is higher in car occupants than any other group of road users. However, the number of car occupants killed or seriously injured has fallen more quickly than the corresponding number of pedestrians, pedal cyclists and motor cyclists (these groups are commonly referred to as ‘vulnerable road users’). The rate of injury (in terms of passenger miles travelled) for car occupants is also much lower than for vulnerable road users.  This is partly because of advanced vehicle technology providing improved protection.

Consequentially, the numbers of different road users killed or seriously injured are more similar in 2014. From 1985, pedestrian deaths or serious injuries became more common than for motorcycle riders or passengers – although this difference is now smaller than it was between the mid 1980s and start of the 2000s. From 2004 to 2012 the number of pedal cyclists killed or seriously injured increased; the numbers fell slightly in 2013 but increased in the latest 2014 figure.

The main reason for the rise in pedal cyclist casualties is probably the increased distance cycled on the roads – evidence from the national road traffic estimates and National Travel Survey suggests this rose by more than a fifth in the decade ending 2014.


In general, people are travelling greater distances – mostly by car. Public transport usage patterns have also changed, with differences between modes used for distance travelled and the number of journeys. Within these patterns, there is also considerable subnational variation – the related links section has more information.

The number of road accidents, meanwhile, has fallen considerably since 1980. In addition to the accompanying decline in deaths and serious injuries, this trend would also help to reduce traffic congestion – and the demand for and cost to emergency, health and welfare services.

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