Motoring has never cost more? Not true says Joe Dunkley.
What is probably true is that motoring is a painful cost for many people. But paradoxically, it’s the fall in the cost of motoring that has caused this problem. During the good times of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, more and more people have built themselves into a car dependency. Car ownership is higher than ever because the cost has been falling for so long. And so, with everybody owning a car, our houses have moved further from our work places, our village shops and services have closed, and the bus service has been withdrawn. This in turn pushes more people to buy and run a car, even if they can not really afford to do so and were quite happy living without one until the shops closed. And when the good times turn bad — when wages are frozen, when office locations are merged, and when redundancies are handed out — you can not simply give up the car. The world changed.If one accepts this analysis, and I do, the problem is that this car dependency is now built into the very fabric of the environment. For 10 years, town centre housing developments containing 2, 3 and 4 bedroom dwellings have been built with only one parking space each - the law demands this. This basically renders them impossible dwellings for a household with two earners. This then forces those people into the only dwelling they can afford with more than one car parking space - the new-build estate of 3 bed "executive" homes on the edge of town - the ones a mile or more from any shop, pub or amenity. This forces, reinforces and habituates car use, not what the framers of the law desired.
The problem is the planning law is so restrictive, only the very rich can afford what they want. I know of no-one who dreams of an identikit "executive" home in identical bricks, to identical plans on identical streets made by the same people, to those on the outskirts of every other town in the land. But getting planning permission for anything else is nigh on impossible. The market must be opened up to other models of high-density living which facilitate cars as they are used but allow other means of transport. This means making it harder to build lots of identical dwellings and encourage smaller, more innovative builders. Tight regulation of planning, as in everything else, supports the big faceless player against the insurgent with good ideas. Does anyone else think it sad that "turn of the millenium architecture" will be dominated by Barrat estates? Without ideas, car ownership will continue to be built into the environment. I don't have any bright ideas, but I am sure someone does and Overprescriptive planning ensures their ideas are aborted.
The Labour government tried to price the motorist off the road. The market responded by making cars cheaper, and making petrol a loss leader for the shop. The government tried to make motoring more unpleasant by adding speed-bumps, but this just made buses and cycling equally miserable and encouraged people to buy bigger cars for which speed humps are less of a problem. Again, the diametric opposite of what was intended. The police tried to cut motoring by putting speed cameras everywhere and succeeded in alienating the hard-working middle classes.
The Tories hinted at a change of approach, and promised to end the "war on the motorist", but will succeed in merely in increasing congestion if they are successful in making motoring more pleasant. It is likely that cycling infrastructure will be seen as unnecessary spending in the age of Austerity so few journeys will be substituted. Despite the end of the "war", motoring will be continue to be miserable, whilst few alternatives are offered. If we continue to say the car is vital, it surely makes more sense to make car ownership less vital AND provide realistic alternatives.
The problem in the mean-time is not the cost of motoring. Even at the current 'take-the-piss' levels of taxation, a car is well within the means of most of the population (yes it is, financial reasons are rarely cited when people decide whether or not to drive. Outside London, failing eyesight amongst the old is a bigger reason for people to eshew driving). The reason that the great car society is struggling is that "we may have congested ourselves to the maximum level we can tolerate". Demand for road-space, and parking especially at specific times of the day, is the limiting factor in people deriving further utility from the car.
Once you accept this, easing the motorist's life becomes impossible for a politician to achieve. So what is a libertarian, aware of the vast convenience of private motor vehicles, to do? Well the approach of punishing the motorist by cost and technological surveillance has failed, and makes people miserable, which is not what we want. The trick is to make alternatives a realistic option, then encourage people to use them. Cycle lanes must be built (next to roads, the cost is negligible). Rail infrastructure must be developed, where economic. Bus, train and cycle must integrate much better than they do currently. How many people have attempted to research a trip to, for example, an airport by public transport, only to give up and take the car, because buses don't integrate with trains without a 2 hour wait in a damp "shelter". Even with the sheer cost and unpleasantness of airport car parking, most of the time public transport cannot compete.
The message to Government is stop punishing the motorist, he's doing that to himself, but instead make alternatives realistic: those of us who might WANT to cycle 40 miles to see family on a weekend should be ABLE to do so instead of being unable to find a route which doesn't involve a suicidal 3-mile stretch of fast, narrow b-roads. Any journey of less than 10 miles can easily be achievable by bicycle, but is rarely attempted because the roads are so unfriendly. Ensure what little infrastructure there is doesn't peter out into a pathetic half-arsed pot-holed track before eventually disappearing like the "national cycle route" between Cambridge and Newmarket.
Finally making people realise that the car addiction is something that they CAN do something about. People who cycle to work tend to be evangelical about the subject. I feel better and it saves money. Living near shops means that the hell of the supermarket car park is avoided. And because my commute is less than 20 minutes (because of hills, I've done the return journey in less than 10) I have an extra hour at work AND an extra hour at home compared to people commuting into London from where I live. "Nudge", much derided, is not "statism light". Pointing out that shortening your commute by living nearer work is like earning an extra £30k as far as happiness is concerned, is not "nanny statism". Happiness economics suggests people prioritise the wrong things: a big house over a short commute for example. To make people aware of the evidence and options is not oppressive. It's common sense. Above all providing choices in transport infrastructure is not nanny statism. It's liberating for those of us who have fallen out of love with the car.
So, the experiment in the great mortoring society has gone as far as it can go. Any further increases in the number or use of cars are likely to generate negative returns to human happiness. It is Government's role therefore to provide infrastructure to other alternatives: a network of cycle tracks and city infrastructure - not to exclude the car, but to probvide an alternative, to both tribes' benefit. Motorists should remember the most tireless campaigners for smooth roads are cyclists for whom a pot-hole is not only a punctured tyre, but potentially a broken collar bone. The infrastructure can and should be built with all road-users in mind.
Every time I write about cycling vs. driving, I get more comments than posts on anything else. Most cycling blogs are strongly anti car, and anti driver, and often fail to acknowledge the vast improvements in lifestyle the car has facilitated over the past 100 years. Those improvements have dried up because we've hit a fundamental capacity limit: the simple fact that cars have to be put somewhere when not in use. If a car park is too big, it takes too long to walk from the farthest space to the destination, thus limiting the number of people who can realistically drive to the (for example) supermarket or into a central business district. Cyclists and pedestrians see more than most the sheer waste of space those parked cars take from other, more productive uses. The privatisation of public space - of fast roads which are designed for cars and cars alone, herding pedestrians into windy flyovers and unwelcoming underpasses. Above all, a car is designed specifically for the comfort of those within it. The noise and speed makes everyone else resent cars, as they render huge areas of towns no-go areas for everyone else. The noise of revving engines is not relaxing. Motoring enthusiasts will not see the vast COSTS of building a society around one means of transport and regard any admission that road building and capacity increases are not going to have any effect on congestion, as heretical.
The tribes of road users react as any competing users of a scarce resource always do: They compete, savagely.
Changing factors such as school runs, and work start/finish times would increase the capacity. Perhaps tax incentives for companies and schools who start at unconventional times? Tax incentives to encourage home-working? This is the thinking behind GPS-based road pricing (though I have significant and probably insoluble privacy concerns about this). The list of potential sticking plasters on the problem of congested roads and the misery they create, is endless before you reach the "price the poor off the road" approach of the last government, however capacity freed in this way will continue to be used up.
I am not sure that anything will work in the long-run and that car use is always going to be unsustainable, Designing our towns and cities around a more human scale will help encourage walking, cycling and shorter commutes and that people will therefor be happier. Some form of private vehicular solution will always be needed however. Advocates of public transport will need to consider the 3am cross country drive when a parent is taken ill and accept that people's lives cannot be reduced a simple commute. Services such as street car provide a better solution for those who have managed to remove the car from their daily routine, and I suspect will become more popular.
Most libertarians are skeptical of "nudge" politics, and rightly so. Politicians love to try to control us. But urban planning is an important function of Government, even if it controls the space, facilitating (or destroying) communities, and remains the best hope for encouraging alternatives to the car (note this is different from discouraging car use). The truth is there is no single answer available at the moment. Intelligent urban planning has something to do with it, price has something to do with it. Above all, the alternative to the car must be made easier, especially cycling.
But I suspect the answer will come when the technology changes: when cars drive themselves. The new technology could well lead to new models of car use and ownership: instead of owning the vehicle - depreciation is the biggest cost facing the motorist - users will be able to use a car to take them to work, which will then go off and do something else - each autonomous vehicle could transport 3 people to work so Fewer cars will be needed for the same utility. Land, currently given over to parking, may return to lawns or flowerbeds. Or sheds where men tinker, anything other than a square of tarmac on which expensive engineering depreciates. Some may wish to continue to own their vehicle and pay for the privilege, and they should be continue to be free to do so. What we need is an urban environment ready for change.
I'll declare my interest. I hate driving. I regard it as a complete waste of time, stressful, misery-making hell of sitting in a box concentrating to an exhausting degree on a boring simple motor task. I can't wait until commercially available vehicles are summonsed from their parking space by text message, to pick you up from your home to whisk you wherever you wish to go whilst you concentrate on something else: a good book, the daily paper, your morning e-mails or whatever. Anything beats driving. Of course some people LOVE driving, the sound of the engine, the speed, the g-forces of braking and cornering, and having driven a really fast car round a track, I completely understand. But just as the Horse, once replaced as a means of transport, became a recreational hobby (to the enormous benefit of the horses themselves), driving too will be relegated to race-tracks. I doubt even the most hard-core petrol-head really relishes a commute through Slough on a damp and crowded Wednesday evening in February.