An undying love that is driving us to distraction

London gets gridlocked into its worst jam for years yet Britain's obsession with the car grows unabated
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The Independent Online
Despite increased pollution, congestion and in the wake of the worst traffic jam in London for 16 years, the British are still unwilling to hand in their car keys and get on the bus.

Our love affair with the car continues to grow, according to a new report from the London School of Economics, with car owners now spending an average pounds 52 a week on their vehicle - more than on clothes and only slightly less than on food.

The report commissioned by the Automobile Association was unveiled only hours after 250,000 drivers were brought to a standstill for eight hours on Tuesday.

A lorry driver was responsible for the gridlock that paralysed much of east London after his vehicle became wedged beneath an overhead sign at the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. He had ignored warning signs which told him that the crane on the back of his lorry was too high for the tunnel's 13ft 4in height restriction.

It hit an overhead gantry carrying warning signs about lane changes and the reinforced steel frame crashed down on to him. He escaped unharmed but thousands of other drivers were stuck as the rush-hour jam spread over a seven-mile area.

Police were yesterday refusing to name the driver responsible, dubbed "a total prat" by the AA, for his own safety. Some drivers were forced to abandon their vehicles and drivers in the Rotherhithe Tunnel, the closest Thames crossing to the Blackwall Tunnel, had to breathe through handkerchiefs and scarves as fumes from the stationary traffic built up.

Despite incidents like this, the LSE report estimates that car ownership will continue to grow because more people want to drive and as prosperity grows, more will be able to afford to.

More than two in three households now have at least one car, and in homes where the head has a job more than half has two or more vehicles. In 1978, there were 17.75 million cars on Britain's roads; now there are more than 25 million.

The average household devotes 15 per cent of its expenditure to motoring but the proportion of its income to own and operate a vehicle has fallen by a third since the early Sixties due to increased standards of living and the falling cost of buying a car.

At the same time, public transport has become steadily more expensive, and many prefer to rely on their own vehicle any way because buses and trains cannot provide the flexibility for most of the trips people make.

Most of the nation now drives to work, with the exception of those who work in central London. "People now live in the country away from work and rely on the car. Journeys to work by bus and rail on a national level are not very important at all," said Dr Stephen Glaister, author of the report.

In fact, the car is the dominant means of transport for most journeys - and is only beaten into second place for journeys of under a mile by walking.

Demographic changes are also helping the inexorable rise of the car. "There will be a generational effect," Dr Glaister said.

"Only 7 per cent of women over 75 who live alone have got cars at the moment. They often never had driving licences and if they had a car their husband drove it for them. But for women in their forties, 70 per cent have driving licences so in 20 to 30 years they are much more likely to have a car," he said.

As cars continue to fill our roads, the difficulty of how to cope with the overload remains a problem. "A time bomb is ticking under UK transport, as the new study clearly signals that more British citizens intend to buy and run cars because motoring is essential to daily life," John Dawson, AA policy director, said.

"People see their lives being enriched by having a car. Seeking to deny these aspirations, rather than manage them, is a dead-end policy."

Options to deal with the situation could include providing more roads to ease congestion, or putting up the price of fuel to try to discourage frequent use of cars for short journeys.

Roger Higman, senior transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth, called for more money to be put into alternative forms of transport: "The idea that people have become totally dependent on their cars is nothing new. The question is what can we do to encourage people off it. If the facilities were better more people would use public transport."

Dr Glaister writes in conclusion to the LSE report: "Very strong forces are going to carry on car ownership and the use of cars unless society faces up to this and makes a decision to stop it. We can't stick our heads in the sand - it won't go away."

Who Spends What on Motoring in the UK?; AA, Norfolk House, Priestley Road, Basingstoke, Hampshire, RG24 9NY.