Transport: We are a nation of car addicts. Dare the Blairites take us on?

The growth in car use goes on. Most of us could not imagine life without one. Randeep Ramesh, Transport Correspondent, examines a report that puts the Government on the spot over its pledge to get people out of the driving seat.
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It may be the end of the road for the gas guzzler. Large-engined, luxurious cars bought as "fashion accessories" were singled out as the unacceptable face of motoring yesterday by a leading group of academics.

A report by the Royal Commission on Environmental Protection noted that car manufacturers were busy promoting speed and size while a "shift in thinking" was required to get people to use more fuel-friendly, smaller cars.

Such sentiment may provide a bumpy ride for the politicians. Ministers have often sought to bolster their green credentials by talking about reducing car use, but rarely do they produce any measures to cut pollution.

Tony Blair made a clean environment a key part of New Labour's New Britain - but as yet his administration has yet to tackle traffic growth for fear of upsetting the middle classes.

The commissioners think that industry also has a part to play. Richard Macrory, a leading member of the commission, said that the manufacturers needed to quicken the pace of change. "With existing technology manufacturers could increase the efficiency of cars by 40 per cent in less than a decade," he said.

But, said the report, consumer demand for extras such as sun-roofs and air conditioning - coupled with the fact that customers have "moved up- market to bigger cars with larger engines" -has offset much of improvement in engine efficiency. "Increased sales of four-wheel drive vehicles and `multi-purpose vehicles' means that it is unlikely that any benefits will be seen."

The news was not all bad for the motor manufacturers. The report praised Ford for its Ka, Daihatsu for launching its supermini, the Move, as well as Mercedes bold new "Smart" car - a two seater one litre car aimed at the urban driver.

However, motoring organisations said the scientists had missed the point. "Research has shown that 10 per cent of cars contribute to 50 per cent of the pollution in the air," said Edmund King, of the RAC.

Ford pointed out that the best-selling Galaxy, given almost iconic status by Tony Blair, carries twice as many people as a small car. The 1.3 litre Ka delivers more than 42 miles a gallon, whereas the 2.3 litre Galaxy turns in a respectable 28 mpg. The MPV market is now worth 1.7 per cent of the UK market and is a growth area.

Sir Geoffrey Allen, a member of the commission, said: "It needs a change in consumer thinking. Buyers need to understand the environmental impact."

This is the second report on the subject by the Royal Commission into transport and pollution - an unprecedented move brought about by the last government's inaction. Despite prescribing radical proposals to curb car use in 1994, nothing has been done. Road traffic is growing again and cycling and walking are in decline.

Professor Michael Marmot, an expert in public health and a member of the commission, said that if nothing was done there would be "a continued increase in obesity".

Among the proposals, the scientists call for a doubling of petrol prices by 2005, a new lorry permit to encourage hauliers to switch to rail and a plethora of road pricing mechanisms and parking permits.

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister responsible for transport and the environment, told Radio 4's Today programme he could not commit the Government to increasing petrol prices. "But give me by spring to give you the framework of achieving the policy and I think the people of this country will see a radical change of direction," he said.

THE Galaxy


Tony Blair, the 44-year-old Prime Minister and his family use a Ford Galaxy.

The car is part of the Downing Street fleet. "Clearly that type of car is quite useful for carrying a number of people around rather than having two cars.

"Because the Galaxy has folding seats at the back you can actually pack it with eight people in extremis," a spokesman said.

"If they want to travel as a family, with three growing children it is convenient. They wouldn't all fit into the prime ministerial car [a Daimler]."

Despite its size, Downing Street claims it has endeavoured to make the vehicle environmentally friendly. It was sent away in August to be converted to run on gas, which is arguably greener than petrol although organisations including Friends of the Earth have expressed reservations.

"We did a pilot previously when John Major was Prime Minister, when a Range Rover was converted to run on gas. As a result of our experience with that, we felt we should continue to convert."

the mercedes driver

Michael Williams, a 49-year-old newspaper executive, drives a Mercedes C-class five miles to work daily. "I work long, irregular hours in a stressful job and I regard it as a comfortable and relatively stress- free way of getting to work," he says.

"The alternative is to take the Northern [tube] line and the Docklands Light Railway which are probably the most erratic in London. The only thing that would entice me off the road would be much more reliable and comfortable public transport." He admits he likes cars. "I regard the car as an extension of my living room in that I have privacy and I can listen to the news on the radio in peace. My car makes a major contribution to the quality of my life. Unlike most other things in my working day, my car is 100 per cent reliable."


Karen O'Connor, 29, a hospital clerical officer, was driving the family Range Rover to Sainsbury's in north London yesterday.

"It's my husband who really wanted one. He likes Range Rovers for the comfort though he doesn't like the amount of money it costs to fill it up," she says.

They bought the Range Rover eight months ago and Patrick, 31, an administrator and driver, uses it for work. Mrs O'Connor, who has a three-year-old son, said she rarely drives it.

She thought they would definitely sell it if taxes penalised big cars or petrol went up in an environmental crackdown. "The only reason we would think about getting rid of it is because of how much it costs," she says.