Comment: Nothing fair about cars

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Nothing makes the argument for old-fashioned state regulation and intervention better than the motor car. From the individual's point of view, its advantages are overwhelming: a little home on wheels where you can regulate your own temperature, comfort level, entertainment and company. It will take you from your own front door to almost anywhere you want to go, stopping at any number of points along the route. It can be used at any time of the day or night. It allows you to travel without much fear of assault. Against all this, public transport has almost nothing to recommend it. True, you can board it while under the influence of drink or drugs - but this only makes it less attractive to the majority of your potential fellow passengers. The car's relative advantages, moreover, have increased over the past 20 years. Cars have become more reliable, more comfortable. Public transport has deteriorated and, relative to the car, it has become more expensive. No wonder that miles travelled by car have increased 55 per cent in 20 years while those travelled by bus, cycle and foot have all declined sharply and those by rail risen only slightly.

The costs of the motor car are familiar: noise, pollution, danger to pedestrians and cyclists, the exclusion of the very old, the very young and the very poor. But these are specifically social costs; the costs to the individual driver (some loss of health and fitness, perhaps) are minor by comparison. This is why transport is a peculiarly inappropriate area for consumer choice and unrestrained market forces. The question is whether any political party understands the scale of the intervention required, the extent to which governments will have to redress the equations if they are to make any significant impact. In Labour's draft policy document on transport, leaked last week, Clare Short, the shadow transport secretary, wants motorists caught in traffic jams to see "clean, fast buses whizzing by in bus lanes" and then decide that they will "leave their car at home or park and ride the next day". More likely, motorists will wonder how wet and cold the passengers got while waiting for the bus. The document optimistically quotes a survey showing that peak-hour journeys in London are quicker by public transport (an average of 63 minutes against 72 minutes). But arriving nine minutes earlier will not be enough to persuade many people to abandon the comforts of their cars. If traffic congestion and long journey times were adequate to deter motorists, we would not be facing our present transport problems.

The truth is that the contest between the private car, on the one hand, and the bus or train, on the other, can only be made anything like an equal one by transforming the economics of transport. At present, cars require a high capital outlay, plus substantial fixed overheads for road tax and insurance; the costs of any particular journey are small in comparison, and often less than the equivalent journey on public transport. Indeed, as the Labour document points out, people feel they ought to use their cars as often as possible in order to get value for money. This is why the Tory approach, of leaving it to individual preference, is such nonsense. The private car is a luxurious form of transport and a remarkably cheap one. Who would choose a YMCA dormitory against a suite in the Ritz if the latter were no more expensive?

The trick is to find the right way of making road use more costly. One answer is to tax petrol more heavily. Another is to impose tolls and other charges for road use, possibly by installing meters in cars and varying charges according to the time of day and type of road. A third answer is to set prohibitive charges for parking in towns. All sorts of difficulties arise, making Labour almost as cautious as the Tories. Higher petrol taxes would be unfair to people who live in the country; motorway tolls would drive motorists on to side roads (why not charge for them, too?); charges generally would be unfair to the less well-off. Yet the present system is also unfair: to those who cannot afford cars and who are driven on to inadequate public transport; to millions who live near busy main roads and motorways; to children who breathe in car fumes; to people who prefer walking or cycling; to our grandchildren who may have to cope with the effects of global warming. Changing our attitudes to the car will require enormous political courage. But we cannot go on as we are.