We all want to get about as easily as possible. Transport policy needs to give us better options.
Despite the fact that I genuinely consider Carry On Up the Khyber to be one of the best British films ever made (yes, really), I’m not much of a Carry On fan. However, the 1971 entry to the series – a tale of industrial strife at the W C Boggs lavatory factory (yes, also really) – just happens to have a title that’s very apt for what I want to say.
Last time out, I expressed my concern that proponents of ‘Peak Car’ risk merely playing the old Predict-and-Provide game, albeit in a new way; and that transport policy must be driven by what we actually want to happen; not by following ‘the numbers’, in whichever direction they lead. Free marketeers and libertarians would disagree with me on this, of course; but then transport policy should certainly not be driven by people who are blinded to good sense by political and/or economic dogma.
People like Lord Wolfson, the boss of Next, whose contributions to a Transport Select Committee Hearing on HS2 I recently came across. ‘Osborne’s Pal’ said that, “93% of the motorised passenger miles in this country are done by road. So that is where we should be prioritising investment.” In other words, “Everyone drives. So we must let them continue to do so”. No mention that previous (market-distorting) investment policies were partly responsible for the current state of affairs; and a presumption that ‘the people’ genuinely want to drive everywhere and are right to do so.
Yet experience should have taught anyone with an open mind that letting provision for transport be driven by the cumulative wishes of individual travellers is a trip down the road to nowhere. This fact was very effectively expressed in the report of the Traffic in Towns Steering Group – a document that celebrates its golden jubilee this very year. Firstly, the report exposed the truth that individuals have an entirely different response to the matter of ‘traffic’ depending on whether it’s our car or someone else’s. Secondly, it was almost prescient in stating that the perceived convenience and status of car travel to us as individuals would inure us to such negative consequences as death, serious injury and environmental degradation.
As witness the accuracy of this prediction, I need do little more than refer you to various comments I have read in response to the Christmas Day car crash on the M6 that resulted in the death of two boys and an adult woman travelling in the same car. Writing in The Voice of Reason (aka The Daily Mail) Richard Littlejohn ranted about the length of time the motorway was shut, based on his expert assessment of the nature of the incident derived from looking at some pictures. “No thought is ever given to the blameless motorists caught up in this chaos. Ruining the Christmas Day of thousands of people by forcing them to spend hours stranded in their cars unnecessarily was an act of callous indifference on the part of the police.”
To provide political balance, I am also able to quote Simon Hoggart in The Guardian. One of his most hated ‘new Christmas traditions’ was: “Accidents. The horrible one on the M6 destroyed Christmas Day for thousands of people who weren't part of it. There is no sight that gladdens the heart of the various highway authorities more than a majestic queue of cars full of people realising their plans for the day are shattered.” My third exhibit concerning this one incident is the loaded questions that the Alliance of British Drivers tweeted to its followers: “Were your Christmas plans affected by the M6 closure? Do you consider the 5 hour closure of the road unfair?”
At the heart of these comments is the casual assumption that, whatever the cause, the inconvenience of being delayed beyond a very short while is essentially intolerable. “I don’t care how many body parts you had to gather, how difficult it was to get the boys’ mother out of the wreck and off to hospital, or how challenging it was to properly investigate the crash scene: YOU MADE ME LATE!”
That we are astonishingly blasé about the negative consequences of motor transport is further evidenced by this remarkable statement by the then Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, in December 2010. “We cannot start imposing heavy prison sentences on everybody who might otherwise be a blameless citizen and then behaves in an absolutely reprehensible way when driving his car.” Why on earth not? That’s like saying, “If you’re obviously a decent chap but happen to run someone over, well, it’s just one of those things. It could happen to anyone.”
Fear of upsetting ‘the motorist’, pretending that the current bias to car travel is the outcome of a free market, and all-but denial of the many negative impacts of motor traffic is no basis for a responsible transport policy. We need to have much less of a laissez faire approach than we’ve become used to, and the obvious place to focus this change is in urban areas, where two important factors coincide. The first is encapsulated by this except from Straphanger, by Taras Grescoe: “Even if a zero-emission miracle-car, running on tap-water and yielding only lavender-scented exhaust, appeared in dealerships tomorrow, it wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem that the automobile, as a form of mass transportation in cities, is a disaster.”
The second is that urban areas present people with genuine options for travel. In a recent BBC interview, the President of Hertz International – the car hire people – acknowledged that his industry needs to change. “In the richest cities, car ownership and use is declining. Instead of the traditional focus on cars and driving, people want access to as many transport options as possible. Car ownership, with all the costs involved, is not necessarily the right model for city dwellers any longer.”
So: mass car travel is bad for cities, but individuals will drive unless they have attractive, convenient alternative travel choices. Hmmmm. What to do; what to do….?
A crashed car and a bunch of layabouts with nothing better to do than keep me waiting (from Metro)
‘The car for people who don’t want one’? Cars as a transport choice, not a lifestyle.
Proposed new cycle tracks on Royal College Street in Camden. If you give people better options….