Features & Interviews

Feature: Van traffic growth outstrips the rest

26 May 2016 #Features & Interviews

SMMT figures published at last month’s CV Show, revealing that the number of vans on UK roads has reached a record 4 million, have been underscored by the latest road transport estimates from the Department for Transport.

These figures show that van traffic in Great Britain grew more (in percentage terms) last year than any other vehicle type, rising 4.2% from 2014. This compares with a 1.1% year-on-year growth for car and taxi traffic, 3.7% for heavy goods vehicles, and a 4.6% fall for buses and coaches. Traffic is measured by the DfT in units of vehicle miles, combining the number of vehicles on the road and the distance they are driven.

The annual traffic estimate statistics are based on data from around 8,000 roadside twelve-hour manual counts, continuous data from about 300 automatic traffic counters, and road-length data.

Light goods vehicle (LGV) traffic (not exceeding 3.5 tonnes GVW) reached a record high of 46.9 billion vehicle miles last year, 70% higher than 20 years ago. This compares with a 2015 total of 247.7 billion vehicle miles for cars and taxis, also a new record high, 0.2% higher than the previous peak in 2007. HGV traffic in Britain reached an annual total of 16.7 billion vehicles miles last year, following two years of growth, but is still 9% below the 2007 peak. Bus and coach traffic has been steadily declining since 2007 and totalled 2.7 billion vehicle miles last year.

The DfT’s traffic estimates are subdivided by road type: motorways, rural A-roads, rural minor roads, urban A-roads, and urban minor roads. Motorways and rural A-roads account for 50% of all van traffic in Britain, but van traffic increased on all types of road between 2014 and 2015. Van traffic now makes up around 15% of total traffic, compared with 9% in 1985.

Seeking to explain exactly why LGV traffic is growing so quickly, the DfT refers to a “baseline survey” it conducted in 2008. This postal survey of UK-registered van owners set out to establish what the vehicles are used for. It found that about 75% of vans are “commercially owned”, rather than privately owned. More than half all van mileage in 2008 was for carrying equipment. Commercially-owned vehicles travel twice the distance annually on average covered by privately-owned ones.

Trends in LGV traffic have followed changes in the UK economy closely over the past 20 years, the DfT points out. But van traffic grew even faster than GDP (gross domestic product) between 2012 and 2015. Three possible explanations for this are singled out by the Department. They are growth in internet shopping and home deliveries; changes to car and van taxation rules making vans more attractive for some people; and businesses switching from HGVs to LGVs to save operating costs and the burdens of greater regulation.

Though the average annual mileage per car in Britain (traffic divided by the number of cars) fell from around 9,400 to 8,200 between 2002 and 2013, the average annual mileage of vans has remained stable at around 13,000 miles, for the past 20 years.

Underlining how HGV traffic closely correlates with the UK economy, the DfT points out that between 2007 and 2009 when GDP shrank overall by 4.6%, truck traffic fell by 10.3%. But the 7.5% growth in GDP between 2012 and 2015 is matched by a 7.3% growth in HGV traffic. It is important to note however, that these overall truck statistics mask some marked differences in trends between HGV vehicle weight categories. Traffic of trucks with four or more axles was 50% higher in 2015 than in 1995. Yet traffic for trucks with fewer than four axles fell by 23% over the same 20-year period. Road freight in HGVs is now more concentrated in heavier vehicles. This results in fewer vehicle miles to transport a given volume or weight of cargo.

Buses and coaches are the only vehicles for which traffic fell last year, down by 4.6%. Bus and coach traffic in Britain has fallen by 15% over the past decade. That said, when the number of passengers per vehicle is taken into account, the analysis changes. Between 2004/05 and 2014/15 the mileage of local bus services in Britain fell by around 4%, but passenger miles rose by 13% over the same period, from 16 billion to 18.1 billion. This, according to the DfT, indicates an increase in the average number of passengers per bus, from 9.9 in 2004/05 to 11.6 in 2014/15.