Congestion on Britain’s busiest roads has fallen by nearly 20 per cent over the last three-and-a-half years as motorists hit by spiralling fuel prices leave their cars at home.
New Department for Transport figures show significant reductions in delays on motorways and main trunk roads as well as a drop in the overall amount of traffic – and Ministers confirm it is linked to the recession.
Separate data shows that in some parts of the country, delays on a number of major roads are down by almost 50 per cent over the past year.
The Government statistics measure congestion on nearly 100 of the country’s main roads by recording the average vehicle delay for the slowest 10 per cent of the journey.
Congestion hit a high in July 2007, when the figure reached four minutes 19 seconds per ten miles, but in
January it was down to three minutes and 49 seconds, a drop of 17 per cent.
It marks the first reduction in traffic volume since the international oil
crisis crippled fuel supplies in 1979.
Roads Minister Mike Penning said: ‘The falls in traffic volume over the last two years are likely to be linked to the wider economic situation but we recognise that it’s a tough time for motorists as we tackle the country’s record budget deficit.’
A report by Trafficmaster, which supplies information about congestion to car satellite navigation systems via a network of speed sensors on major routes, said that the number of hold-ups last month on the M1 between Leicester and Sheffield had fallen 52 per cent compared with February 2010.
Graham Smith, the company’s data manager, said: ‘The simple explan¬ation is that there are now fewer vehicles on the roads.
There is considerably less commercial traffic and in some cases people are finding other ways to get to work.
‘People are also cutting down on leisure trips or driving to the shops. The cost of fuel is a major factor in people’s decisions about making journeys these days.’
Traffic volumes in city centres such as Leeds have also fallen and the numbers of motorists paying the congestion charge for driving in Central London fell by 500,000 between 2009 and last year, even though there was no rise in the charge.
Figures released by the Office for National Statistics revealed that petrol sales dipped by 4.1 per cent over the three months up to January compared with the same period a year earlier as petrol prices rocketed.
There was an even greater drop of 9.5 per cent in the three months up to December compared with the previous year.
The fall in sales came as the cost of a litre of unleaded petrol soared to an average of 133.17p – £6 a gallon – earlier this month, up from 128.3p in January, and garages reported that many people could afford only half or even a quarter of a tank at a time.
Experts predicted that the cut of 1p a litre announced in the Budget would do little to reverse the trend of declining car use.
RAC motoring strategist Adrian Tink said he was in no doubt that motorists were cutting down on driving as they felt the pinch.
‘We are seeing record numbers of people walking and biking. Evidence from the last couple of quarters is that the sale of petrol is dropping,’ he said.
‘A lot of people are combining journeys, making shorter ones and looking at alternatives like the train.’
He added that road improvements and extreme weather conditions were also factors.