Who drives in Britain?

The current population of Great Britain stands at around 63.2 million people. From the way transport is presented by much of the media and by politicians, you would think that every single one of these people is a ‘motorist’.

I thought I’d take a quick look at the 2011 Census data, along with National Travel Survey information, to see who drives.

There are some slight problems here, given that the Census only gives age group breakdowns in five year increments. That means I can’t get hold of the numbers of people aged above and below 17 (the legal driving age); only those aged below 14 and above 19.

Nevertheless, we know from the Census that there are – in total – around 10.4 million people in Britain under the age of 14. Self-evidently, these people are not ‘motorists’. Although this figure includes very young children, the fact that it doesn’t include those aged 14-17 means that 10 million is probably a reasonable approximation for the number of children of independent mobility who do not drive cars.

The latest National Travel Survey tells us that 34% of females aged over 17 do not hold a driving licence. Again, the Census is not particularly helpful here, as we only have the numbers of females aged over 14, or over 19. Nevertheless, using the more conservative figure of the number of British females over the age of 19 – 25.5 million – we can say that there are at least 8.7 million females in Britain who could hold a driving a licence, but don’t.

We can perform a similar calculation for British males; 27% of them aged over 17 do not hold a driving licence. Again, using the conservative figure of the numbers of males over 19, we find that there are therefore at least 6.1 million males in Britain who could hold a driving a licence, but don’t.

Adding these conservative estimates up, we find that there are nearly 25 million non-motorists in Britain. Or – in other words – at the very least approximately 40% of the British population can’t drive a motor vehicle.

Worth thinking about.


As has been pointed out in the comments, I should have mentioned that this 25 million figure doesn’t even include those who hold a driving licence, but do not have access to a car, or those who have a licence but choose not to drive either at all, or rarely (like me). The numbers in these groups are probably quite hard to quantify, but will almost certainly push the non-driving percentage of the British population well over 40%.


Thanks to Shaun McDonald, who has pointed me in the direction of some more detailed stats. The total number of British under-17s is 12.2 million. The number of Britons over the age of 17 is 49.1 million, of which 28% do not have a driving licence – or 13.8 million people. 

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Who drives in Britain?

  1. geoffrone says:

    In the Llanelli area approximately 35% of the population don’t have access to a motor car. Transport poverty is a real issue in the more deprived areas of S Wales – and I suspect the rest of the UK. It is one of Sustrans most important campaigns and also one of the main drivers of the welsh Active Travel Bill.

  2. Nico (@nfanget) says:

    With a bit of stats you could even put confidence intervals on that 😉

    Note that you considered only people too young to drive, or that we know do not have a license. To that should be added people who hold a license but cannot afford/don’t want a car (plenty of both in London), are banned (permanently or temporarily), have a car but no MOT/insurance and thus shouldn’t drive, have a SORN car, have a medical condition that means they cannot drive, or are just plain too old. And I’m probably forgetting some.

    I’d wager adding all those in pushes the percentage of non-motorists much closer to the 50% mark.

  3. And then there’s those who can drive but don’t have access to a car…

  4. Paul says:

    40 % cant drive a motor vehicle? In many cases of those who make up the 40% I would suggest they don’t want to drive, like me for instance who nevertheless has a licence. Good analysis of the figures though!!

  5. Mark Hewitt says:

    It’s often said however that although not everyone owns a car or drives. A significantly larger number are dependent on cars in some way or another. e.g. My mother, who has never driven, got taken everywhere by my Dad when he was alive. And now gets taken to the shops etc by myself or my wife. So she would count as not having a driving licence and a household without a car, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t car ‘dependent’.

    • Nico (@nfanget) says:

      That is very true, and it is for her and for all the people who can’t or won’t drive a car that we need to improve the conditions on our roads, to give them back their autonomy.

      • I’d like to echo Nico’s comment. I think this someone-else’s-car dependency is common here, I can certainly think of older members of my family, and friends’ families, who are similarly reliant on the family acting as a taxi service.

        I wonder how common this is in the Netherlands, though. I suspect it’s a much rarer thing. I’ve seen plenty of pensioners getting about by themselves on a bike there, panniers full of shopping, no need to wait for a lift.

        There’s almost no section of society who wouldn’t benefit from safer cycling conditions. We’ve just got to show them how and why.

  6. disgruntled says:

    According to the Scottish census data, 40% of Scottish households don’t have access to a car.

  7. Paul says:

    Its always going to be a difficult one to work out. For example how many of those non license holders are transported in a car every day by the wife/husband/mother/father/son/daughter/friend who does have a license? Individually they may not have a license but their tax is contributing to their use of the road. Maybe it would be better to look at the number of households who have access to a car rather than the number of people who have licenses. You then need to consider people who have more than one car etc etc etc. My though is that an estimate based on households rather than licenses would be more realistic estimate but would not generate as good a headline number as yours.

    Just to look at this with the other often quoted stats on the number of bicycles out there. Our household has three people living in it (the other 3 have already left). We have two cars, one of which is off the road for most of the year and does a couple of thousand miles a year but is taxed so part of an accurate(ish) estimate of the number of cars on the roads. In contrast we have 6 bikes but, here is the difficulty, four are used solely by one person (me) one is my daily commute, one is fixed to a turbo, one is my race day bike, one is my mountain bike, the other two are occasionally used by the other family members. This kind of distribution is probably representative of the number of bikes available being very unevenly distributed across the population. Also there is no registration/scrapping to track so no real understanding of the actual number in use. My own belief is that 80% of adult bikes sit in sheds or garages unused for years at a time.

    Generally speaking any comparison of the number of people with access to bikes vs access to cars is wild speculation at the best.

  8. I’ll dig out the government stats. I think it took until the 80s until 50% of men drove. What you have done is explicitly stated in PDFs on the UK gov website and over time, and in more detail—license holders for each age group, sex, year, number of registered vehicles (currently ~30m), etc.

  9. pm says:

    Some relevant data for London on this blog


    Which fits my own experience – that the majority of inner Londoners don’t drive. Of course, that’s because most use public transport, as the roads are too clogged up with drivers from outer-London and from outside the M25, to make cycling appealing!

    The relationship of mode-of-travel to other demographic factors seems to be a very complicated one. There are people who don’t drive because they aren’t well-off, and there are those who don’t drive because they _are_ well-off. I know plenty of council-estate dwellers who don’t drive, but only the youngest of those cycle (and those do seem to have a tendency to use pavements). But non-drivers also include young single, fairly high-earning, incomers to the city for whom keeping a car just isn’t worth the bother. Then there are the ideologically-green hippy/hipster types for whom its a political or lifestyle choice!

    I suspect that a very high proportion of more affluent cyclists also own cars. How much they use each mode seems a difficult thing to establish.

  10. Step outside of London and everybody drives. Ok, that’s not actually true. Let’s say all the ‘economically active’ people drive. Or at least the ones who are eligible. That excludes the very young, the very old, the frail, the ones who couldn’t pass a driving test etc. Mostly. There are loads of other exceptions but that doesn’t matter. As far as the policy makers and opinion formers are concerned, the subjective truth is that all ‘normal’ people drive cars but only a handful of mamils and hipsters ride bikes.

    It’s the people who drive cars, or are passengers in cars, who need to be brought on board in an infrastructuralist campaign. These are the cyclists of the future, the people who might leave the car at home and use a bicycle if only there was a safe route to ride on which went where they want to go. Trying to argue that drivers are somehow a minority isn’t going to convince these agnostics, no matter how much you back it up with figures, as people only have to look outside their front doors to see innumerable cars on our streets and roads.

    So in answer to ‘who drives in Britain’ it’s subjectively everybody. The focus of campaigning and advocacy needs to be convincing everybody that the bicycle has a major role to play in the future of personal transportation and that everybody will benefit, not just the mamils and hipsters. I reckon there are better ways of winning over an audience than by trying to marginalise them through statistical analysis.

    • pm says:

      I’m not entirely sure about the logic of attempting to make an objective argument out of an appeal to subjectivity! I could equally well argue that almost nobody drives, on the same basis (I live in London, and that’s my subjective experience). That’s the trouble with subjectivity, you see, its, er, subjective!
      And I don’t see where the attempt to ‘marginalise’ is in the original article, to me it sounds like just an attempt to point out a reality that can be obscured by the political power of the car lobby.
      I agree somewhat that to make any progress its necessary to persuade at least some motorists to ‘switch teams’. The problem, as ever, is that car-culture is a self-perpetuating problem and it feeds on itself. People won’t be persuaded to abandon the car till other transport modes become more appealing, and its very hard to make other methods of transport appealling until the tyranny of the car is bought to an end.

  11. paul gannon says:

    According to a recent article in the FT (6/10/13) there are some signs for optimism that a major shift in attitudes may be discernable. The full article is worth reading (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/0e32fe68-d116-11e2-a3ea-00144feab7de.html#axzz2h4jO96tZ) though the FT operates a pay wall which comes into action after you have read a few articles. If you’ve not read any before, try the link.

    Main figures from the article:

    Car ownership levels are falling as is average distance driven each year by Americans; the declines are particularly steep in younger generation. These trends were apparent before the economic crisis of the last few years, so the situation may not change when the economy improves (as hoped for by the car lobby).

    Car ownership per household was at a peak (of 2.05) in 2006 and was down to 12.95 in 2011. Average number of miles driven peaked at 9,314 in 2004 and was down to 8,494 in 2011. Average number of miles driven by 16- to 34 yr olds fell 23% between 2001 & 2009; also the number of 14 to 34 yr olds without a driver’s licence fell from 26 to 21%.

    The article also reports on US cities developing cycle routes, debates whether the trend will be reversed along with economic recovery & the response(s) of motor manufacturers.

  12. Duncan says:

    “One in five men and one in three women over the age of 17
    do not hold driving licences. Of the total British population
    (including children), 42 per cent either cannot drive or do
    not hold a full driving licence”

    Click to access fairness_car_dependant.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.