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23 October 2021

No one is waging war on motorists – but maybe we should be

Face it, a world with fewer cars would be healthier, cleaner and just plain nicer.

By Jonn Elledge

Last November, 14 Tory MPs from the “Fair Fuel for UK Motorists and Hauliers” all-party parliamentary group wrote to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to complain about cycle lanes, and also about the 25 October 2021 expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (which, with the attention to detail that great drivers have required down the decades, they’d wrongly conflated with the congestion charge zone).

They were backed by the Road Haulage Association, the Alliance of British Drivers and Fair Fuel UK, a lobbying group with a definition of “fairness” that doesn’t seem to get much beyond “paying less tax” (fuel duty has not been increased since 2009), and whose frontman’s house some joker recently marked as a petrol station on Google Maps in the middle of a petrol shortage. The letter was headed: “The Uncalled-for War on the Motorist”. The Transport Secretary’s response history does not record.

Such a war has been a feature of right-wing mythology for decades. But, it must be said, it’s a funny sort of a war, since roughly 80 per cent of the adult population can drive and the side under siege seems to be making most of the running. Many of the bold plans to widen pavements or create cycle lanes laid out during the early months of the pandemic have been reversed, if they ever actually happened in the first place. In May 2020, Shapps did sprinkle a few million quid on improved public transport and cycling infrastructure; but this a mere fraction of the £1bn set aside to turn a single road, the A66 from Workington to Middlesbrough, into a dual carriageway.

This year, with Cop26 looming, the government is looking to make cars cleaner by replacing petrol vehicles with electric ones – but it is doing nothing to discourage their use. Meanwhile Andy Street, the Tory mayor of the West Midlands, is poised to give the go-ahead to a £2.5bn electric “gigafactory” on a site close to Coventry airport. The location feels strangely symbolic, since Coventry spent much of the 20th century cheerily replacing the city’s famed medieval architecture to build more roads, then blaming it on the Luftwaffe.

At any rate: if there is a war on the motorist, it’s a war that the motorist is winning, and doing so with the enthusiastic backing of the British government.

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This is a shame because there are numerous compelling reasons to think that a civilisation built around the expectation that most of us have our own personal tonne of metal to move around in was kind of a bad idea. To wit:

1) They waste a lot of space. Look out at your nearest street. Look how much room it sets aside for cars – both moving and stationary – compared with the space it gives over to other forms of road user.

There is a reason for this: it takes a lot more space to move a given number of people by car than almost any other form of transport, and those cars spend the vast majority of their time just parked, taking up room. The arrival of self-driving cars will address the second of those problems, though perhaps by less than its advocates think; but it won’t do anything for the first. All those cars are taking up space that is not then available for anything else.

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2) They waste a lot of energy. Let’s imagine we do successfully manage to transition from fossil fuels to electric vehicles. That’s still quite a lot of energy being used to push large, shiny boxes about, which we could massively reduce through greater use of bikes, feet and well-planned public transport.

3) They pollute. Even if they’re powered by batteries, creating the energy that goes into those batteries may well generate pollution. And even if it doesn’t, cars kick up dust and particulates just by moving around. The electric vehicle revolution will not suddenly make it desirable to live near a main road.

4) Look, car-free spaces are just nicer, OK? Have you ever been on holiday to a medieval city in, say, Spain, and noted how their cities just seem that bit better than ours? I bet you anything that if you think back to that city, you’ll realise that one of the things that made it so nice was how large chunks of it did not include cars.

(Coventry, incidentally, has recently been trying to undo much of the damage its town planners did in the 20th century. Sadly, nobody told the City of Westminster, which has blocked plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street and recently reopened Soho to traffic every evening. Oh well, our weather’s not really cut out for pavement cafes anyway.)

And finally:

5) They kill people. Not all the time time of course, but frequently enough that it’s surely at least worth mentioning. This is not a good thing.

Undoing our dependence on cars isn’t something that could happen overnight. Too often, our homes, workplaces and shops are too far apart, and little thought has been given to how to get between them without private transport. And there are journeys and circumstances for which private cars will remain the best option, no matter what we do to our cities.

Nonetheless, a world in which we are trying to reduce our dependence on cars is a world that would be healthier, cleaner, nicer – and free up space for housing, businesses, parks or any of the other things that actually make places worth living in.

No, there isn’t a war on the motorist. But it’s about time there was.

[See also: Golf’s stranglehold on land in London should be broken]

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