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Why People Don't Drive Cars - Research Findings

DescriptionResearch was commissioned to better understand why some people choose not to drive cars, the ways in which these individuals adapt to non-car ownership and the benefits of non-car use.
Official Print Publication Date
Website Publication DateFebruary 02, 2000
Development Department Research Programme Research Findings No 75
1999Why People Don't Drive Cars

George Street Research

The Government is committed to encouraging the use of public transport and to reducing dependence on the car. Research was commissioned to better understand why some people choose not to drive cars, the ways in which these individuals adapt to non-car ownership and the benefits of non-car use. The findings will guide the development of effective travel awareness campaigns and educational programmes to encourage people to use alternative forms of transport to the car. The research concentrated on travel behaviour patterns in urban areas in Scotland.

Main Findings

  • The car dominates transport systems and travel behaviour in Scotland - two thirds of Scottish households have a car and a similar proportion of adults hold a driving licence. Even amongst non-car owners there is still a degree of reliance on cars.
  • 12% of adults in Scotland who hold a driving licence but generally do not drive much or at all.
  • Those least likely to drive were aged over 70, (especially women), aged under 21, living in single parent or single adult households, and on low incomes.
  • The main reasons people gave for not driving were financial, cited by 44%, and personal preference (43%). Other reasons were lack of access to a car, ill health, preference for public transport and environmental considerations.
  • People without cars travel less overall. Half of all journeys for those living in households without a car are on foot, while 22% were by bus and 12% as a passenger in a car.
  • Advantages of not using a car were perceived mainly in personal terms - reduced stress levels, an enhanced social life, convenience, absence of parking problems, cost savings and improved fitness. Fewer respondents cited wider environmental or altruistic benefits.
  • There was widespread agreement that in order to reduce car use, changes in lifestyle need to be made. Respondents felt that change should be promoted in a positive and empowering rather than punitive way.
  • Criticisms were levelled at the current mix and quality of alternatives available to travellers including lack of regular and frequent public transport services, a lack of co-ordination between different transport providers and a lack of co-ordinated information regarding travel options.
  • The research findings suggest that key messages for encouraging modal shift need to differ depending on the target audience. Two different distinct market segments were identified; a small minority of drivers who may be prepared to give up their cars entirely for environmental reasons and a much bigger group who would be willing to scale down their use of the car for specific journeys and/or give up a second car.


The majority of all journeys in Scotland are made by private car/light van and this mode of transport accounts for over three quarters (78%) of distance travelled 1. However, little is know about the segment of the population who could afford a car and who are fit to drive, but who choose not to. How these travellers adapt to non-car ownership and their travel patterns are of interest to the Scottish Executive, particularly in the context of developing strategies which will encourage people to use alternative forms of transport to the car. To help in the development of effective travel awareness campaigns and education programmes, it is important to understand the underlying reasons for those choosing not to use cars for travel and the benefits of non-car use. It was in this context that research was commissioned with the following key objectives:

- to identify characteristics of households and individuals who do not own or have access to a car, with a particular focus on those for whom this is a conscious choice

- to explore why some individuals or households choose not to drive

- to better understand how non-car users adapt their travel to alternative modes

- to understand the extent to which non-car users might still be car dependent, especially in the urban context

- to explore the trade-offs made by non-car users when making travel choices

- to identify the benefits of non-car use.

Research Methods

The study was conducted between January and June 1999. Given the wide ranging information requirements, a staged approach to the research was adopted. The first stage of the project comprised a desk based review of published information sources to identify the general characteristics of car and non-car users in Scotland. This was followed by a nationally representative survey of 1000 individuals to identify and quantify those who choose not to drive a car. The final stage of the research comprised qualitative interviewing, with a total of six focus group discussions and twenty-one face-to-face in-depth interviews conducted at a variety of locations across Central Scotland. This stage focused primarily on those who choose not to drive much or at all in order to understand the stimuli behind their non-use of cars and the way in which travel is managed without a car.

Car Ownership

64% of Scottish households had at least one car and 17% had two or more cars, equating to an average of 1.27 cars per car-owning household. Of those respondents who claimed not be a driver of any car within their household, 35% claimed to be a passenger 'very often', 30% an occasional passenger, and 24% claimed to rarely be a passenger. Just over 1 in 10 claimed never to be a passenger in the household vehicle.

Women have lower levels of car use than men in terms of distance travelled per year, a difference partly explained by lower driving licence holding especially among older women. Low car use (either as a driver or passenger) also tends to be strongly associated with low household income. The survey showed that a greater proportion of home owners (78%) than those in rented accommodation (46%) have at least one car in their household. Also, car ownership is much higher in households with younger members - amongst the over 65's, 62% do not have a car compared to the survey average of 36%.

Non-Use of a Car

Nationally 62% of the adult population of Scotland holds a driving licence. The study revealed that just under 12% of adults in Scotland who hold a licence generally do not drive for one reason or another.

  • 5% of the sample had a full driving licence but tended not to drive very much
  • 4% had a full driving licence but chose never to drive
  • 3% chose not to drive whenever possible.

For this minority choosing not to drive, a variety of alternative travel options were used and these included walking, use of a bus or bicycle. The significance of different modes of travel varied, depending on particular demographic and lifestage characteristics of individuals as well as their geographical location.

Travel Choices for Non-car Owners

Attitudes towards non-car use and/or ownership relate to reasons for non-car use, the amount of travelling undertaken and the locations to which travel is undertaken.

Amongst those individuals who have made a deliberate choice not to use or own a car, attitudes towards non-car use and ownership are largely positive. However, those who did not own, or have access to a car, because of financial or ill health reasons, tended to dwell on the disadvantages and inconvenience caused by lack of a car.

For those respondents who were working, travel tended to be regular and frequent and, as such, there was relatively high awareness of travel alternatives which were available to them.

There was widespread agreement that, in order to reduce car use, changes in lifestyle need to be made. If promoted effectively, these changes can be perceived as positive moves that will enhance quality of life. At present, a majority of non-car users are resentful of measures which are seen as intended to force drivers off the road, such as increased taxation, higher petrol prices, the imposition of tolls to enter cities etc. This is especially the case where there is no guarantee that revenue raised might be directed towards improving the public transport infrastructure. Related to the need for positive promotion of lifestyle changes, respondents referred to the government having a duty to encourage, rather than enforce.

Criticisms were levelled at the current mix and quality of alternatives available to travellers. Even amongst respondents in large cities, lack of an effective public transport system was cited as a major stumbling block. Specific criticisms tended to relate to a lack of regular and frequent transport, a lack of co-ordination between different transport providers and a lack of co-ordinated information regarding travel options. Safety issues were also a concern voiced especially by females.

The Benefits of Non-car Use

When respondents were asked to cite the advantages and disadvantages of non-car ownership or use, these often related to specific lifestyles or life stages. In general, advantages given tended to fall into one of two categories, namely, altruistic or personal. The former included benefits to the environment and more appreciation of surroundings, whilst the latter included reduced stress levels, an enhanced social life, (the ability to drink and not worry about the consequences of blood alcohol levels), convenience, a lack of parking problems, improved physical and mental health, and cost savings. Whilst public transport was criticised as being expensive, there was still a general acknowledgement that for certain levels of use, maintaining a car will cost more - therefore the justification of having a car is its heavy use. Hence, people naturally cut down on the number of cars in their households when they retire.

When asked to identify the disadvantages of managing without the car, these tended to focus on inconvenience and curtailment of activity and reliance on irregular, infrequent and unreliable public transport. The need to carefully plan and manage journeys, problems managing shopping and luggage, and concerns about personal safety on public transport were also mentioned.

Key Messages For Reducing Car Use

In considering key messages that could be put across to drivers in order to reduce their car use, these should be positive and empowering, rather than punitive.

The findings of the qualitative research suggest that key messages need to differ depending on the target audience. For example, for older individuals, the cost associated with running a car is an important factor, whilst advertising aimed at younger people who are keen to maintain levels of fitness, could focus on the health aspects and benefits of not using a car. As such, a series of advertisements each helping to reinforce the others, but with special significance for specific audiences, might be the most effective means by which to target the optimum numbers of drivers.

In general, drivers can be segmented into two key groupings, namely, those who might be prepared to give up car use almost entirely, and those who would be willing to make choices regarding individual journeys and the number of cars owned. The former group is likely to represent an extremely small proportion of the driving population, likely to give up driving primarily for altruistic reasons such as the desire to protect the environment, possibly encouraged by financial arguments. The latter grouping of drivers might be persuaded to reduce their car use by arguments such as reducing the stress and strain of driving and parking, relaxing/working on public transport, cost savings (particularly for the elderly) and improved health and fitness (for the young).

Respondents were clear that change could only occur within the broader framework of an improved public transport infrastructure with car sharing, park and ride, cross ticketing, extended concessionary fares, school travel plans and better information being particularly important.

1Travel patterns in Scotland 1997: System Three for The Scottish Office 1998

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