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Last Updated: Friday, 5 November, 2004, 11:48 GMT
Rise of the four-car family
By Susannah Cullinane
BBC News

Not long ago the two-car household was the last word in suburban affluence. But changing lifestyles and a fall in car prices have given rise to what used to be seen as an American phenomenon: the three- and four-car family.

With upwards of 24 million cars on the road and traffic jams an everyday reality for many of us, it already seems that British motorists have reached breaking point on the roads.

But the trend towards car ownership shows little sign of slowing down and new research reveals one of the big growth areas is among older children who have yet to fly the family nest.

One in five British homes with 17-21-year-olds living at home is classified as a four-car household, according to new research. Almost half the 500 households questioned for the Zurich Insurance survey had three cars.

The trend is being driven by a number of changing factors in family life, coupled with a fall in new car prices.

Last year the Prudential financial services group published a survey saying 6.8 million British parents had children aged 18 or more who were still living at home.

1955 Cadillac
Cars used to be for polishing
But while grown-up children are often reluctant to cut the apron strings - particularly in light of the rising cost of attending university away from their home towns - their parents are less likely to be prepared to act as a shuttle service.

As a compromise parents are increasingly expected to buy-off their children with a car. More than 40% of cars being driven by 17-21-year-olds are gifts from parents.

The Automobile Association believes rising incomes and a fall in the cost of cars has contributed to the trend, along with more women driving.

"I think the family unit certainly isn't as strong as it used to be and I think people are leading increasingly independent lives," says the AA's Gavin Hill-Smith.

Research by the AA Trust in 1998 showed car use was 14 times greater than in the 1950s and the use of buses had halved.

"Many people are having to commute further and further for work and given the sometimes unreliable nature of the public transport options (if any exist) this often necessitates the use of a car, fuelling the growth in multi-car households."

Traffic jam
The new look 'family day out'
So who are these multi-car households?

Ian Crowder, 55, who lives in the Cotswold countryside near Cheltenham, Glos, and is head of a four-car family, says relying on public transport would be unworkable.

Mr Crowder says he needs a car because he works 100 miles from home in Farnborough, staying nearby during the working week: "My wife is a community midwife so she needs a car to go from appointment to appointment.

"My stepson Mike (22) is doing a gap year from his marketing degree in Bristol and he's working his gap year with an estate agency, so he needs his car, and my step-daughter Melanie (20) uses a car to get to and from work," he says.

"If you asked her she'd say it gives her independence and it takes her half the time to get to work."

Cheltenham used to be well catered for when it came to public transport - at one time it had five railway stations, but that has been reduced to one. Meanwhile, the villages the trains used to serve have grown into small towns.

Echoes of America

It's all a far cry from his formative years. As a child he and his father - a schoolteacher - both cycled to school in Hampshire and the family didn't have a car.

"The culture was different in those times - I think most people used to use public transport or use shank's pony."

So, as we shift to multiple-car families, are we destined to become another America - all spaghetti junction and no footpaths?

The Department for Transport says it recognises car ownership is attractive and that it is likely to increase over the next 30 years.

"With nearly two million extra people in work, more people are travelling every day and as people become better off - so they have more reasons to travel," a spokesperson says.

It said it is investing in efficient transport options that are environmentally friendly.

"We're planning ahead to meet increased demand and we're better managing the traffic already on our roads to ensure we have a reliable and free-flowing network."

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