The impact of the coronavirus pandemic saw 2020 and 2021 have among the biggest single-year impacts on road traffic since records begin in 1949, according to the Department for Transport’s latest road traffic estimates.
Between 1949 and 2019 motor vehicle traffic had increased over eleven-fold from 28.9 to 338.6 billion vehicle miles, largely driven by steady growth in car traffic. Car traffic in 2019 was around 20 times higher, whereas lorry traffic was only around twice as high and bus traffic was similar to the 1949 level. This has altered the share of traffic by vehicle type over time, with the car traffic share rising from 44% in 1949 to 78% in 2019, and the lorry traffic share falling from 27% to 5%.
In 2021 all motor vehicle types saw an increase in traffic levels during 2021 compared to 2020. However, car, motorcycle and bus traffic remained below the pre-pandemic 2019 levels, whereas van and lorry traffic were slightly above.
Despite an estimated 297.6 billion vehicle miles were driven on Great Britain’s in 2021 - an increase of 11.9% compared to 2020 - traffic in 2021 was 12.1% lower compared to 2019 pre-pandemic levels.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had a marked impact on everyday life, including on traffic on the road network. The first national lock down commenced on March 23,2020, which along with subsequent restrictions, limited the movement of people to varying degrees
During the ‘Stay Home’ period in late March and April 2020, only essential workers were allowed to go to their place of work, and travel outside of the home was severely limited. April 2020 was the month which saw the largest fall in traffic, 63% lower than traffic levels in April 2019.
As the restrictions started to ease, the monthly traffic levels increased gradually. Subsequent lockdowns and restrictions led to lower traffic levels and January 2021 saw the largest monthly fall in traffic (37% lower than levels in January 2019) since May 2020. After all restrictions were lifted on July 19, 2021, in the remaining months of 2021, traffic levels were between 4% and 6% lower than the equivalent monthly traffic levels in 2019.
Although all motor vehicle types saw an increase between 2020 and 2021, overall traffic levels remained below pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Car and motorcycle traffic saw the biggest increases, but still remained below pre-pandemic levels by -15.8% and -5.2%, respectively. Although van and lorry traffic experienced smaller increases in vehicle miles between 2020 and 2021, they rose above pre-pandemic levels by 1.7% and 1.6%, respectively.
In 2021, cars, vans and lorries all saw their lowest levels in January, following the announcement of Tier 4 restrictions coming into force in large parts of England on December 26, 2020.
Car traffic was impacted more than other vehicle types and in January 2021 was 42% below the flows in January 2019. Van and lorry traffic were less impacted, falling by 20% and 9% respectively.
As 2021 progressed, van and lorry vehicle traffic saw levels go above those seen in 2019. The biggest increase for both vehicle types occurred in June 2021 where levels were both 10% higher than the equivalent month in 2019. Car and taxi traffic gradually increased throughout 2021 and since July 2021 (following the lifting of all covid related restrictions on 19 July 2021) were between 91% and 93% of the levels for the equivalent months in 2019.
Motorway traffic increased by 14.4% between 2020 and 2021. Traffic levels on motorways increased for all vehicle types between 2020 and 2021. Car traffic saw an increase of 15.3%. Van and lorry traffic increases of 16.6% and 7.8%, respectively. Other vehicles (buses and coaches and motorcycles) saw the smallest increase, rising by 7.1%.
In 2021, 60.3 billion vehicle miles were travelled on motorways, an increase of 14.4% on the 2020 total. Compared to 2019, motorway traffic decreased by 14.5% in 2021. Compared to pre-pandemic 2019 levels, 2021 car traffic and other vehicle traffic remained lower, by 21.8% and 48.2%, respectively. Van and lorry traffic were both above 2019 levels, rising by 7.8% and 3.3%, respectively.
In 2021 129.7 billion vehicle miles were travelled on GB’s ‘A’ roads, an increase of 12.4% on the 2020 total. Compared to 2019, ‘A’ roads traffic decreased by 13.6% in 2021. Meanwhile, 107.6 billion vehicle miles were travelled on minor roads, an increase of 10.0% on the 2020 total. Compared to 2019, minor road traffic decreased by 8.8% in 2021.
Although the Strategic Road Network makes up only 2.4% of England’s road network, it carried 33% of all motorised traffic in England in 2021. Car traffic on the SRN increased by 15.3% from 2020, to 56.1 billion vehicle miles, although it was 20.9% lower than pre-pandemic 2019 levels. Van traffic increased by 16.7% from 2020 levels to 16.1 billion vehicle miles - 7.1% higher than pre-pandemic levels. Lorry traffic increased by 8.2% from 2020 levels to 10.6 billion vehicle miles - 3.2% higher than 2019
Over 50,000 vehicles travel along a typical stretch of the strategic road network each day. This is over 3.5 times greater than the number for a typical stretch of locally- managed major roads, at 13,700.
The South-East region had the highest traffic levels in 2021, with 47 billion vehicle miles driven on its roads. This was 16% of all traffic in 2021, on 12% of the road length in Great Britain.
Of the five local authorities with the highest levels of traffic, three are in the South East region (Hampshire, Kent, Surrey); and two were in East of England region (Essex, Hertfordshire). In 2021, all regions saw their traffic levels increase between 10% and 15% compared to their 2020 figures. The biggest increase was seen in Scotland (15.3%) and the smallest increase was seen in the Yorkshire and The Humber region(9.8%).