Overthrowing the Car

What needs to be done to get the transport system we deserve

By George Monbiot. Published in the Big Issue, date unknown.

Never has a government said more about the need to reform the way we travel in Britain, and seldom has a government done less. Last year, John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, announced a bold and inspiring “integrated transport strategy”. “Two cars in the drive”, he said, “are not a symbol of prosperity but of a failure of the public transport system.” He would re-regulate the buses, revitalise train services and reduce our dependence on the car. Transport campaigners waited for the results of these brave new statements with bated breath. And waited.

Last year’s budget, which should have been the key instrument for implementing the new government’s plans, was bitterly disappointing. Insiders at the Treasury say that several critical policies for reducing traffic stayed in the budget right up until the last minute, when someone in the Downing Street policy unit advised the Chancellor that they were just too hot to handle. That talismanic man polishing his Ford Sierra must have revisited Tony Blair in his dreams – New Labour’s Middle Englanders, number 10 decided, would simply not tolerate any restraints on their freedom to make everyone else’s life a misery. Instead, Gordon Brown timidly added just one penny more to fuel tax than the Tories has proposed.

Mr Brown is now refuelling at the last-chance filling station. If this budget is as feeble as the last one, then New Labour will have signalled unmistakably to a gasping nation that its promises for a more habitable country are written on the filthy wind. John Prescott may huff and puff, but if the Chancellor doesn’t get on his bike, his policies will add up to no more than a cloud of hot exhaust.

So what does Gordon Brown have to do, to redeem last year’s feeble performance? No task is more urgent than to recognise that the “great car economy” of which the last government so proudly boasted is rigged.

Between 1974 and 1994, new government statistics show, average disposable incomes rose in real terms by 51 per cent. The cost of a bus ticket increased by 55 per cent, and a train fare by 71 per cent, while the cost of driving a car actually decreased. Bus and train journeys, in other words, became more expensive than they had ever been before, while car journeys became cheaper than they had ever been before. You need look no further to see why traffic congestion and pollution are making so many of our cities so hostlie to human life.

It should surely be cheaper and easier to do the right thing than to do the wrong thing, and there’s little doubt that driving everywhere is the wrong thing to do. While the cost to the individual of private motoring has fallen, the cost to society as a whole has rocketed. Last month, the Government Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants reported that air pollution hastens the death of up to 24,000 people a year and puts a further 24,000 in hospital. Carbon dioxide in car exhaust is also responsible for around 20 per cent of Britain’s contribution to the greenhouse effect, whose repercussions could, according to the Government’s Chief Scientist, include the termination of the Gulf Stream, the oceanic current without which Britain would have a climate like Spitsbergen’s.

Half the homes in England and Wales suffer from noise levels above World Health Organization guidelines. Noise is one of the principal causes of stress, and has been associated by a study in Greenwich with heart disease, migraine and gut disorders. Our children are growing up socially stunted: instead of playing together on their bikes, they are playing alone on their computers, partly because the streets are both dangerous and choked with cars.

Not all of these vexations can be measured, but there’s no question that drivers cost Britain far more than they pay. A report for the British Lung Foundation shows that the pollution, congestion, accidents, road damage and climate change caused by drivers costs us £45 billion every year. They pay only one third of this sum in taxes.

It’s one of the many ways in which the poor subsidise the rich in Britain. Thirty-two per cent of households have no access to a car, largely because they don’t have the capital to lay down in order to make their subsequent journeys cheaper. Not only do they suffer most from decades of under-investment in public transport, but, as no one else will live there, they are also the ones who end up in homes beside the motorway or under the flyover. Research by Dr Ian Roberts of Great Ormond Street Hospital suggests that the major cause of death for British children aged between 1 and 14 years is being run over, and that those in social class 5 are five times more likely to be hit by a car than those in social class 1.

All these injustices are likely, unless we get the radical transport budget we need, to get worse. Traffic volume is predicted to rise by 38 per cent over the next 20 years, and one estimate suggests that diesel vehicles, whose emissions are far more harmful to public health than those of petrol engines, will triple in just ten years.

If people use their cars so much because motoring has become cheap and public transport has become expensive, then the impending budget surely needs to turn the equation around. Car drivers, rather than their victims, should pay the full costs they impose on society. Public transport should, once again, be cheap enough for everyone to use, and good enough to encourage even the rich to leave their cars at home. Walking and cycling need become safe and painless ways of getting about. You don’t have to be a transport analyst to see that most of these things need government action.

Some of the measures needed, such as better planning and dedicated bus and cycle lanes, fall outside the scope of Treasury business. But nothing of substance will change until the government is prepared to tax and spend. Petrol costs 7.5 per cent less in real terms today than in did in 1974. A study by the transport analyst Dr Phil Goodwin showed that a 10 per cent increase in petrol tax would lead to a seven per cent reduction in vehicle use. It would also, of course, bring in the money needed to make alternatives to the car more viable, such as the £7 billion required to revitalize the Underground, or the £400 million to build a decent network of safe bicycle lanes around Britain.

The new budget should put an end to another staggering social subsidy: the £1.5 billion the nation forgoes every year as a result of company car tax concessions. No financial incentive could be more perverse, for the further company car drivers travel, the more money their business saves. After 2,500 miles, tax on the car is halved, after 18,000 per year it is halved again.

Whatever the finacial incentives, it will be hard to persuade people to use the bus when they already posess a car: tackling car ownership, in other words, is a critical component of tackling car use. This means massively increasing the cost of a road licence, with rebates for the disabled. But no budgetary measure is as important as pricing the abundant provision of parking places out of the market.

People set out in their cars only if they expect to be able to leave them somewhere when they arrive. The surest means of cutting traffic in the cities is to cut the number of available parking spaces. Slap a major tax on business parking, for example, and the 17 per cent of commuters who make every London rush hour so miserable would quickly find that they can use public transport like everyone else.

So there’s no mystery about where the money needed for sensible public transport could come from. Thanks to appalling underinvestment, London’s Underground is the most expensive on earth, and one of the worst. People won’t be more inclined to use it more until ticket prices come tumbling down, much as they did under the old Greater London Council’s Fare’s Fair policy. The government has ruled out a renationalisation of the railways, concluding that it would be too expensive. But there’s no question that they need more money, for real improvements, rather than share options for greedy directors.

And policies like this can work. Houten, in the Netherlands, for example, has reduced car trips per household by 25 per cent by providing proper facilities for bicycles and pedestrians. Traffic entering Bologna in Italy has fallen by 48 per cent, as a result of making life harder for cars and easier for pedestrians. There is no reason on earth why London or any other British city can’t also be turned into a place fit for human habitation rather than a giant rat-run for lazy executives. All that could prevent us from enjoying a clean, decent and safe city environment would be a failure of courage on the Chancellor’s part, as he prepares for his make-or-break budget.