Young people again? Yep, young people again. Last week, we dealt with the decline in youth turnout and its possible causes. Now, let’s look at one of the hidden concerns of young voters: getting behind the wheel. A lot is said about student debts and housing costs and job opportunities. Much less about the fact that the proportion of 17 to 20-year-olds with a full driving licence, in England, has declined by 13 percentage points since the mid-Nineties
The graph isn’t entirely conclusive… As you’ll see, the numbers fluctuate from year to year. There is a downwards trend, but it’s not an obvious one. The number for 2013 is higher than the low of 27 per cent achieved in 2004. And it could rise again with this year’s figures, on the back of the economic recovery. Yet, despite all that, a 13 percentage point decline over 15 years is still a 13 percentage point decline. Fewer young people are signing up to drive.
…but it still raises issues… Why this decline? The most obvious answer is cost, with insurance premiums, vehicle taxes and petrol prices all tending to increase above the rate of inflation. But there are also some less prosaic theories. One is that urbanisation, of either the country or of city-bound young people, brings with it a greater reliance on public transport. Another is that young folk are choosing to drive along the Information Superhighway instead. A recent survey found that 46 per cent of young Americans would choose Internet access ahead of owning a car. Why drive to a meeting place when you can simply meet up on Facebook?
…that could be important for public policy. Of course, young people aren’t the only demographic to drive. The Government still reckons that traffic on the country’s motorways will increase by 46 per cent over the next 25 years, in part because of general population growth. But what if it doesn’t? For one thing, it would mean less money for the Exchequer. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts already suggest that the revenue from motoring taxes will decline by “the equivalent of £13.2 billion a year in today’s terms” by 2029/30 – and that doesn’t properly account for the potential growth of electric and autonomous motoring. Politicians should fear a higher toll.
Is Osborne building for the past? The Chancellor is right to want to renovate Britain’s road network, not least because it’s ranked just 28th in the world – only two places ahead of Namibia’s. But the awkward question hanging over his £15 billion “Road investment strategy” is whether, by the time it’s done, it will be instantly outmoded. Autonomous motoring could, by itself, change everything from the layout of our towns to how much space lorries take up on motorways. The future, which belongs to the young, has a knack for not cooperating with politicians’ blueprints.