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26 June 2000

Scots lead English over transport

New Statesman Scotland - The car will not "liberate" us. It will just give us a climate lik

By Christopher Harvie

Sarah Boyack has been the Scottish Minister of Transport for longer than any recent Westminster equivalent. Her ideas about the environment are long-range, and could give Scotland the policy-originating role in Europe that we badly need. But she is – in the populist run-up to the election – lonely.

At Westminster, by contrast, Gus Macdonald, the Transport Minister, is seemingly trying to drop new Labour’s commitments to reducing car use. It seems that ex-lefties still have a yen for total systems. Macdonald’s goal is America and its mass car ownership. But – to hell with Rio and Bonn – the US is still churning out greenhouse gases, and more and more of these come from motor traffic. Even if new cars are theoretically cleaner (where did all these thuggish, gas-guzzling four-wheel-drives come from, then?), the growth in their numbers, and the persistence of second-hand vehicles, means that pollution gets steadily worse.

Global warming will not mean pavement cafes in Govan: we have already had a foretaste of repeated storms and floods, such as the devastating Hurricane Lothar. And behind this is the “threshold effect” – the ending of the Gulf Stream flow. If this happens – and it could, within a couple of decades, through the melting of parts of the Polar ice-cap – Scotland’s climate will rapidly come to resemble that of Labrador.

Enough said, surely. But “40-year-old male motorist” politicians still defend the “liberating car”. We travel about 6,000 kilometres a year, 300 per cent more than we did in the 1960s, most of it by car. Are we liberated? The poll data suggest not. We have the school run, the out-of-town shopping centre, the tyre mountain and a car-borne generation as dim as it is overweight, living in the tacky subtopia that Matt Groening nails so accurately in The Simpsons. Car ownership growth has come from fewer nuclear families and more small households; the Germans are wisely reinventing the bubble – the Mercedes A or Smart – for this reason. But most of the rise in vehicle miles is due to “going for a spin”, fleeing from what Thomas Carlyle once called “the monstrous ocean-moan of ennui”.

Motoring societies aren’t advanced. Switzerland has the highest rates of public transport use, with the car kept mostly in the garage. Zurichers take 410 trips by bus, tram and train annually; in Manchester, the figure is around a third of that. Private transport effectively offloads social costs on to the individual, with resulting economic inefficiency. Driving demands (I hope) total concentration, yet British companies create a dis-economy by bankrolling company cars, through which executives are de facto subsidised for not working.

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The motorist is taxed far more than he gets in road investment, say the AA, the RAC and so on. But the global costs of road transport – congestion, pollution, accidents – estimated by Professor David Pearce of London University in 1995, outrun direct costs by a factor of three. We are buying transport – by road and air in particular – too cheaply, with payment deferred to the next generation.

Even so, we are paying more than enough. In the 1960s, transport accounted for 10 per cent of Scottish family expenditure. It now accounts for nearly 18 per cent, three-quarters of it on motoring. At a time when policies should be improving education, the lives of the elderly and coping with social exclusion – which mean dealing with groups that, almost by definition, are non-motorists – such excessive expenditure is as big a menace as money sunk in booze and fags. Macdonald has claimed that wider car ownership would “lessen social exclusion”. In 1998, Professor Bob Holman of Glasgow University found that, in Easterhouse, car ownership stuck fast at 20 per cent between 1986 and 1996, with no prospect of increasing.

The British transport mess is largely down to the Conservatives and assorted heralds of free enterprise. Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, the man who did to economics what Jeffrey Archer did to literature, wanted to rip the railways up and replace them with roads, when TGVs were already hurtling through Europe. And now the likes of Macdonald is giving up and settling for whatever will get Mondeo Man to put an X in the right box.

You have to go back to John Stuart Mill to sense what has gone wrong. He wrote in the 1860s that if nations couldn’t organise their transport, they wouldn’t remain nations for long, and this seems true of the UK. No statistics are more damning than the contrast between capital investment in transport in the London area – £23m – and in Scotland, where Railtrack’s “network enhancement” budget for 2004 was £2m.

But philosophy has a further contribution to make. If a good is justifiable, it has to be universal. Right? At the moment, 15 per cent of the world’s people own 85 per cent of the world’s cars, and our climate is in a mess.

What happens if, say, 30 per cent of the world’s people avail themselves of the “benefits” that Macdonald praises? Can individual mobility be a good if, by becoming universal, it kills us?

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