Urban life

I'm a transport snob and proud of it

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article in the NS against the expansion of aviation, and a week later I was invited to speak on The Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2. "You're just a middle-class snob who doesn't want poor people to fly," Vine cheerfully suggested, and I blustered feebly in response. Regular flying may now soon be regarded as akin to habitual smoking: something dirty, dangerous and déclassé - and be taxed to the hilt. I do hope that's how it turns out, and I wish I'd had the nerve to say to Vine that I am a snob about flying.

I always feel slightly ill at airports, owing to the sheer numbers of people looking moronic while consuming food. I can't stand the florid grandmothers buying 200 Lambert & Butler at the Duty Free, the overpowering lassitude of the terminal bars. Airports themselves are usually very ugly. As Douglas Adams once wrote: "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression 'As pretty as an airport'."

I offer these thoughts in the hope that they are catching, because snobbery determines all our transport choices. Unfortunately, it usually kills some perfectly inoffensive mode. Take trams. We've been desperate to get them back into our cities ever since they were scrapped - and they were scrapped because of the snobbery of that thrusting new breed of the 1940s, the motorist. London trams carried the stigma of being the only form of public transport emblazoned with "No Spitting" signs. They offered cheap, workmen's fares and (their cardinal sin) they got in the way of motor cars.

Railways, unlike trams, are middle-class. Close your eyes and imagine the typical man on any intercity train. He is middle-aged, bespectacled. He sits down and unfolds the Guardian. If he eats a sandwich from the buffet, he carefully brushes up the crumbs afterwards. According to the Rail Passengers Council, the top 20 per cent of earners make 49 per cent of all railway passenger journeys. Yet railways are looked down on from a great height by some - especially the young.

A director of the Oxford Research Agency, a company that has done a lot of market research for the rail industry, told me: "Younger executives tended to use their cars. Cars to them were still a bit of a novelty, whereas older, more senior executives would take the view that they deserved some time relaxing on a train." Don't you just hate the sound of those young executives? I do, but then I share the standard liberal middle-class approval of trains, which has insulated them from the sheer revulsion that I trust will now be directed towards aeroplanes.

In general, I'm pretty sanguine about the shifting patterns of transport snobbery. Yes, we remain in thrall to the car, but drivers of 4x4s may be on the back foot. Bus use is increasing across Britain after years of stagnation, and in the capital it has rocketed. This is partly thanks to Ken Livingstone's service improvements, but there is another factor. In London, buses are an acceptable form of transport to the middle classes: 20 per cent of bus users in the capital are from social groups A and B, whereas in the pro vinces bus use is associated with social groups D and E. Only in London is it not social death to be without a car - it's one of the few ways in which the capital is truly sophisticated.

The Underground, like the overground railway, is relatively pricey and therefore the province of the respectable. The story of the Conservative transport minister who, riding on the Northern Line in company with Underground executives, appalled his hosts by inquiring, "Where's the loo?" is apocryphal. I myself once saw Norman St John-Stevas on a Tube train, and my wife saw Tony Blair on one shortly before he became Prime Minister.

Readers will probably have guessed by now, given the overall rightness of my transport preferences, that I am a keen cyclist. Now cycling, like walking, is in steep decline in Britain, because here the snobbery of the liberal north Londoner (signified by the remark "It's the most efficient form of transport ever invented, you know") is outweighed by the snobbery of the masses. Jeremy Paxman may cycle - and Will Self, and Boris Johnson - but that cuts no ice with a certain class of young male who will slow down his car as he passes any cyclist, and laugh derisively. When this happens to me, I try to tell myself that I am the future and these young men are the past. It's a strategy that will work eventually, I believe.

Darcus Howe is away