I'm afraid that victory will go to the car in this war

`The strange truth is that our behaviour as motorists has increasingly become an assault on ourselves'
Click to follow
YESTERDAY MORNING, while taking the kids to school, I passed a couple of grown-ups having a quarrel. Now, there are only two circumstances in which Britons will row in public at nine in the morning: either they are related to each other, or there's a car involved. In fact, there were two cars: a shiny, red, new one, and a battered, white, old one.

The young man beside the parked red car wanted to go to a meeting, for which he was already overdue. But he couldn't get out, because the road was already full of temporarily parked vehicles belonging to mums and dads bringing their offspring to school. The woman in the white car was the last in this line, and was dashing to get to the playground before the late bell sounded. They were both irritated and both, I would judge, becoming a menace to wing-mirrors.

Here's the question: were these people "motorists"? The intellectuals of the early 20th century brought us several -isms, and then the -ists created more -isms. My favourite, from the battle of Stalingrad, is "sniperism"; a "sniperist" being a sniper whose entire being was given over to shooting enemy soldiers at long range.

So what is a "motorist"? I ask, because, according to John Redwood, the Conservatives' spokesman, the Government has launched a vendetta against motorists; the AA and RAC say that they will not accept road-charging unless roads and buses are improved; and the "Adultery News" (aka Daily Mail) carried the banner headline yesterday, WAR ON THE MOTORIST.

Mr Toad was a motorist. In his penultimate incarnation he lived for motoring. The image of a motorist is of a man (or literary amphibian) in goggles, his hair whipping in the wind, enjoying the open air and open road at an outrageous 30mph. I don't think there are many motorists like that any more. Well, maybe I'll allow you Jeremy Clarkson, and the editor of "What Phallic Substitute?"

My couple were certainly car-drivers, but in that moment of conflict they had no common cause, no -ism. She was a school-runner; he was (a) a resident and (b) a commuter. Had he been stopped in her road when she wanted to get away, their roles would have been completely reversed. So, people who drive cars are no more motorists than shoppers are shoppists, bus-users are busists, train commuters are railists, walkers are pedestrianists or parents are kiddists.

It's because we are many things, not just motorists, that it's hard to look with equanimity on the latest forecast of a 40 per cent or so increase in the volume of traffic over the next 15 years. In our non-driving roles we can see that this growth is unsustainable. But which bit of us is going to vote at the next council or general election?

The provisions of the Transport Bill, which have so alarmed the political friends of the motorist, include allowing councils to levy congestion charges into their areas - should they so choose; the hypothecation of revenue for the improvement of public transport; and the possibility of levying taxes on workplace car-parking. War? Hardly.

But here, as we know, the Government is not sure about our intentions. Will we vote as "motorists"? Less strident than the Tories, the motoring organisations none the less appeal to our sense of ourselves as car-drivers first and foremost. They both argue against charging unless and until there is a significant improvement in public transport, and in road repair and maintenance. "Motorists," they say, "need alternatives".

So, we would stop using our cars so much (we take more journeys and longer ones than anyone on the Continent) if only the trains and the buses ran on time. Except, of course, that we wouldn't. Long conversations yesterday with the AA and RAC (and what nice people they are, by the way) elicited these two pieces of information. The first was that 20 per cent of all journeys by car were unnecessary, and could be just as well be undertaken on foot. The second was that, even if public transport were vastly improved, nine out of ten "motorists" would still use their cars. So, we could invest half our GDP on trams, and car use would still grow by 30 per cent by 2015.

The genie is out of the bottle. The same demographic fundamentals that give us the requirement of a million extra homes in the South-east (people living longer, greater mobility, divorce and separation, affluence, dual- income households) are giving us a coast-to-coast chromium millennium.

There is no form of public transport yet devised that takes you from your garage to your bowls club car park, plays your CDs, encloses your farts and shuts out the farts of others. We now can hardly imagine living in any other way. "What will we do with the office car parks?" asked the RAC man incredulously. "Plant trees?" "Most drivers have to use the car for their journeys," said the chap from the AA, "and you can't cycle eight miles to work!"

No, you can't. Because of the cars. I did a lot of walking on country roads this summer. Not once did I come across a cyclist or a pedestrian (other than outside their own homes), and every yard was a matter of wondering whether the van or Merc coming round the corner would be going slowly enough to allow me time to jump into the nearest hedge.

In cities the principal reason for escorting children to school is fear of rat-running traffic (or even, irony of ironies, school-running traffic). The car shoves everything else aside.

The strange truth is that our behaviour as "motorists" has increasingly become an assault on ourselves as everything else. We rage, speed, park illegally, and pollute, terrify and intimidate our non-driving selves. Encased and enmotored, we're a bloody menace. The much-criticised direct action taken by the Reclaim the Streets organisation is, in fact, an extraordinarily mild form of protest against such an assault.

Yet Messrs Hague and Redwood violently oppose any constraints on the car. The very same people who argue that councils in the South-east should be able to forbid new home-building in their back yards, now assert that locally levied congestion charges constitute an attack on freedom.

What's this? Love cars, hate houses? Might we describe this as a "vendetta" against house-livers? Does Mr Redwood also "hate" walking schoolchildren, asthmatics, cyclists, parents, and blind people who need clear pavements?

My fear is that it's all too late; that we have organised life around the car to such an extent that there's no persuading us back. Cartopia is coming whether we like it or not. And certainly, when I pushed him on it, that's what the AA man admitted.

You can see what happens next. My car is good, and your car is a menace. Communities will construct zones in which outsider vehicles will be made to feel unwelcome. Rat runs will be closed off, residents-only parking will be enforced, wardens will harass the school-runners, and the young guy in the red car will bash in the windscreen of the woman in the white one. The whole business will become even more nasty, fraught and expensive than it is now.

Friends, Britishpersons, what's it to be? Cartopia, or Reclaim the Streets?