Van ownership hit record levels in 2020, as the number of vehicles on UK roads fell for the first time in more than a decade. That’s according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), which tracks the trends among the vehicles that populate the UK road network.

The 2020 figures show 40,350,714 vehicles were on the road last year, down slightly when compared with 2019. It’s the first time the number of vehicles in the UK has fallen since 2009, when the country was suffering at the hands of a global financial crisis.

That’s despite an increase in the number of vans on UK roads, as uptake increased to the highest level ever. Vans now make up 11.4 percent of all the vehicles on the nation’s roads, with 4.6 million roaming the UK.

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But the coronavirus pandemic has stifled the uptake of new cars. The SMMT data shows new car registrations were down by almost 30 percent last year, as dealers were forced to close their doors in the spring. That means the cars on UK roads are older than ever, with an average age of 8.4 years.

Despite these statistics, the number of cars on British roads only fell by 0.2 percent last year, and the country still has more than 35 million passenger cars. Of these, some 10 million have been in service since 2008 or earlier, while the ‘average’ British car was built in 2011. Although the SMMT says these figures are “testament” to the quality of modern vehicles, the organisation also expressed concern that an ageing automotive population would hamper the country’s attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

traffic on the M4 motorway near Cardiff

The SMMT’s figures suggest a new car built in 2020 would emit an average of 112.8 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled. That’s 18.3 percent better than the average car registered in 2011, raising concerns about the UK’s ability to reach net zero emissions in the near future.

That said, the data shows electric vehicle ownership more than doubled in 2020, reaching an all-time high of almost 200,000 vehicles. Similarly, there are now almost 240,000 plug-in hybrid cars on the roads of the UK. However, that means the two technologies combined account for just 1.2 percent of all the cars on British roads. And the SMMT is worried there is much work to do to encourage drivers out of older and more polluting vehicles.

“With the pandemic putting the brakes on new vehicle uptake in 2020, the average car on our roads is now the oldest since records began some 20 years ago,” said SMMT chief executive Mike Hawes. “The technology is changing, however, albeit slowly. Despite massive growth last year, just one in 80 vehicles is a plug-in electric car – while nearly 10 million petrol and diesel cars dating back to before 2008 remain on our roads. Encouraging drivers to upgrade to the newest, cleanest lowest emission cars, regardless of fuel source, is essential for the UK to meet its ambitious climate change targets.”

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