Being a largely rural area, Northern Ireland has had a long love affair with the motor car. In many country areas the car is vital to enable people to get about because the public transport system is insufficient to meet either work or leisure travel requirements.
Yet it is disappointing to note that the number of car journeys continues to rise and now accounts for almost three quarters of all trips made.
This is in spite of efforts to get people to walk or cycle more, or even use public transport to reduce congestion and pollution. It seems that fears of an increase in obesity, especially among children, have not yet got through to the general public as their levels of exercise continue to fall. This is storing up a serious health problem for the future. One of the main causes of the increase in car journeys is the school run, with 60% of primary school pupils now being driven to their schools, even though these are quite close to their homes. There is a certain irony in this statistic.
Many parents fear for their young children's safety on the roads given the level of traffic, so they drive them to school, further increasing the number of cars on the roads and making it even more unlikely that the children will be allowed to walk or cycle to the classroom. There have been many initiatives to try to woo people out of their cars. In Belfast, for example, the Belfast on the Move project of increasing bus lanes and diverting private vehicles away from the city centre does not appear to have had the desired effect.
Instead of bringing the public along with the planners, the cack-handed implementation of the plan alienated many motorists, even if there was a general belief that the objective of reducing congestion was desirable one.
It is clear from these statistics that efforts to get people out of their cars for non-essential, or short, journeys must be redoubled and a joined-up approach involving planners, road management experts, environmentalists and health experts is required.