Pushbike licks Aston Martin in the race to unclog London

The RAC began its centenary celebrations yesterday by showing that cars are a waste of time.

A race through the centre of London, set up by the motoring organisation and involving vehicles ranging from a 1901 French-built Mors and a 1910 horse-drawn carriage to a 1997 Aston Martin and mountain bike, showed that the horse and cart was almost as quick as the car.

The RAC has changed. No longer does it promote the gung ho "motorists are king" which has been its ethos for most of the past century. "We champion for mobility, rather than the motorist" said its chief executive, Neil Johnson. It has bowed to the inevitable, aware that untrammelled freedom of the motorist is no longer viable.

Indeed, as part of its celebrations it has issued a charter "to keep our cities moving" and the race was an exercise to show that that our cities, or at least the cars in them, are now barely moving.

The charter is also full of the sort of sensible stuff that one is more used to hearing from its opponents in the environmental lobby such as spending more on public transport and reducing pollution. The RAC even wants to pedestrianise part of Trafalgar Square to improve the capital's environment.

The Independent's reporter forsook his normal bicycle for the back seats of the pounds 76,000 Aston Martin DB7. It was not a wise decision. Aston Martins are not designed for third parties. They can just about fit children under seven, but anyone else has to forgo the seat belts and lie across the back with their head against the back windscreen, praying the driver does not go over a pothole.

Mr Johnson, who was driving the borrowed Aston Martin - "we're fully insured, I checked" - was clearly itching to break the speed limit and the rules, and possibly this reporter's head, as he sped away from the start, just off Pall Mall. The route was to take us down Piccadilly, through theatre-land, round Trafalgar Square, down the Mall and back to Pall Mall, a circuit of just over three miles.

But all the power of the engine was wasted. Piccadilly was hell, blocked from one end to the other and the Daily Mail man in the front seat tried vainly to find the traffic news on the over-complex radio.

"We could have walked here more quickly," groaned Mr Johnson, who confessed that he normally walked around London or used a 50cc moped.

It was only a fire engine that saved us from the ignominy of being beaten by the more manoeuvrable bubble car which had passed us in Piccadilly. With the engine sounding hell and fury, Mr Johnson went through a red light at the top of Trafalgar Square, saving a couple of minutes. Inevitably the cyclist, Kevin Delaney, won.

Mr Delaney, is an expert on the vagaries of London's roads, having been the police chief superintendent in charge of the city's traffic until he moved to the RAC a couple of years ago and was famous for riding round in his uniform. He does a round trip of 26 miles on his bicycle every day and had no trouble clocking up just under 16 minutes for the journey, an average speed of 12.6mph. The Mors, which seemed to be blessed with good fortune through the traffic, came second, eight minutes behind at 8.4mph, while the Aston Martin was third, at 7.7mph. However, the horse- drawn carriage was only a minute behind, managing a creditable 7.4mph despite obeying all the red lights. "I don't know why we bother with cars," quipped one of its passengers, David Worskett, who happens to be the RAC's director of public affairs.

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