Has Britain reached “peak car”?

More and more people are using public transport to get from one place to another.

"We will end the war on motorists," the Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, declared when the coalition took office. "Motoring has got to get greener but the car is not going to go away."

In the literal sense, Hammond is correct. The car in one form or another is here to stay and his department currently bases all of its projections on the assumption that car use will grow for ever.

And yet the growth in the number of miles and trips each of us drives began to slow in the early to mid-1990s, during the dog days of the last Conservative government. This trend became even more pronounced in the early 2000s, and since 2005 – notably before the recession and recent fuel price spikes – car use started to decline. Britain has already seen what transport policy wonks call "peak car".

Source: IPPR, using data from the National Travel Survey

The transport guru Professor Phil Goodwin, of the University of the West of England, points out that other, once-dominant modes of transport, such as railways, have also enjoyed what at the time would have looked like unending growth and then suffered what in hindsight was an inevitable decline.

So why not the car?

The motoring lobby will argue that, even in the era of peak car, almost 80 per cent of journeys are taken using private rather than public transport. While this is true, and suggests that only a fool would wage war on the motorist, there has been a small but symbolic shift in favour of buses and trains.

But peak car is arguably less about us switching from the car to the bus or the train to get from A to B and more about changes in society and attitude.

Researchers have only a fragmented picture of why peak car is happening and it's our job to find out more. But one of its most interesting aspects is that young people are more responsible for the trend than other age groups.

Indeed, it seems fewer young people nowadays harbour the ambition to drive. Between 1992 and 2007, the proportion of 17-to-20-year-olds holding a driving licence fell from 48 per cent to 38 per cent and that of 21-to-29-year-olds from 75 per cent to 66 per cent (note this is a PDF – see page 27).

The costs of motoring are doubtless a factor. For instance, according to an AA study, the average annual cost of car insurance for a 17-to-22-year-old man is £2,457. But young people aren't simply swapping cars for buses or bikes; they are choosing to own and use other technology instead, such as smartphones and tablet computers.

Significantly, the use of these technologies while driving is not only against UK law, but also difficult. A recent survey of college students in Colorado (where sending messages from smartphones while driving is not illegal) found that while 75 per cent of users said they often used their phones while travelling by bus, train or as a passenger in a car, only 10 per cent of them said they did so while driving a car.

We need to know more about peak car. Cutting carbon emissions from transport will be easier to achieve if we're working with the grain of people's behaviour rather than against it. But more important still is the implied shift in the politics.

Even in the era of peak car, it seems like a stretch, but if driving were to go the way of trains and buses, then fighting or ending the war on motorists may in the end prove a lot less significant.

Andrew Pendleton is associate director at IPPR on climate change, transport and energy.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism