Time to kick our filthy four-wheeled habit

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's all very well setting tough air quality criteria, then expecting councils to police them and car makers' new technology to meet them. But despite John Gummer's undoubted sincerity, his new air quality measures, announced this week, seem at best fanciful, at worst half-baked.

There are some relatively simple ways of cleaning the air in our major conurbations, but it's going to take politically tough decisions to effect them. Longer term, it will require a sea change in the way governments think, and the way people behave. Our society has put personal mobility above personal health for far too long. A decade ago, before unleaded fuel became widespread, we were, in effect, putting the wear on our engines' valve seats above the health of our children's brains. How screwed up can society get?

And we haven't learnt much since. Despite brave noises being made about clamping down on polluting vehicles about a year ago, nothing happened. Buses, lorries, taxis and vans still belch their fumes, making a nonsense of tough new emission legislation on new cars, and a mockery of posturing politicians who espouse green causes. Old, polluting cars still fart and cough their way across town. Maybe this time our newly empowered councils will do something about them - but I have my doubts.

Mr Gummer pretends that Britain is at the forefront of European countries in fighting for cleaner air. He's wrong. For years, Britain held back legislation urged by Germany, the Netherlands and other enlightened European countries to tighten car exhaust controls, and we're paying the penalty now. For years UK governments - including the Seventies Labour government - resisted calls for tougher, European-wide regulations, mainly because British Leyland was then too stupid to meet them.

Next year, Germany introduces a tax structure to favour cars fitted with catalytic converters. Britain would do well to emulate this.Catalytic converters are not a panacea - how can they be, when Los Angeles is still a bowl of pea soup though the US has had catalytic converters for almost 20 years? But they are still the most effective cleanser of car exhausts. Better electronic controls of engines, and new catalysts, will bring more improvements.

Diesel, once naively identified by the green lobby as an environmentally friendlier fuel, has now been shown up as the noisome stuff that it is. The price should be hiked markedly.

The MoT test, now inclusive of emissions testing, is a joke. If your car fails at one test station, it will probably pass at another. The number of smelly, smoky vehicles - presumably all with valid MoTs - shows how ineffective the test is. It should be toughened immediately.

The state of our trucks, vans and buses - all diesel, of course - is also a disgrace. London Transport's old smokers are probably the foulest vehicles in the capital, an indictment of what is still supposed to be a state service. Not many years ago, LT fitted some old Routemaster buses with "new" Iveco diesel engines. Shamefully, it chose old-technology diesel motors because they were cheaper. We Londoners will be paying the price for many years.

In the longer term, the challenge is to change the way we use, and view, the motor car. We are in danger of treating it as our ancestors did their legs - as the automatic mode of transport. In America, the car is, in effect, starting to replace people's legs: which is why in many American towns there are no footpaths. All social activities - shopping, going to cinemas, eating junk food - involve car use. We are going down the same slippery slope, with those disastrous and unsightly out-of-town shopping malls, and a widespread migration from cities to the countryside. People move out to give their families a better environment but, by doing so, they are slowly ruining the environment for everyone. Country living involves a car for every journey and long commuting for the breadwinner, usually by car.

Long term, our whole "transport planning" (a phrase disappointingly alien to the current government) must change. Priority must be given to those who travel on foot. If this means turning some streets over to pedestrians (as has been successfully done in other cities, usually with no loss of business to shopkeepers), then so be it. The second to be considered should be cyclists, theirs being the quickest and most convenient way to travel on journeys up to three miles. Next is public transport. Priority should be given to the car only when it is the most efficient means of transport. This can be quite often: when journeying from, say, the London suburbs to most country locations, a car carrying a family of four is a much more energy-efficient means of transport than a series of complicated rail connections on half-empty trains.

Mind you, cars will get much cleaner. Car companies are not stupid, despite the impression some give, and any threat to their transport primacy will not be taken lightly. They know they have to serve up pollution-free transport, and soon. If they do not deliver, they will not survive in business: people are now starting to demand clean air, not just wish for it. Such a challenge has always focused the minds of those who run big companies.

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