David Aaronovitch: Put the car culture into reverse

'We link public transport with austerity. The car is like the semi-detached with garden ? in the realm of achievable dreams'

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At 11.45 yesterday morning I drove along the A5, through what is ambitiously sign-posted as "Burnt Oak town centre". Though it wasn't the rush hour or even the lunch-hour rush, there were cars everywhere that cars could be. In a 100-yard stretch of bus lane, I counted 11 parked automobiles, and two vans. The drivers were nowhere to be seen, and no loading or unloading was taking place.

At 11.45 yesterday morning I drove along the A5, through what is ambitiously sign-posted as "Burnt Oak town centre". Though it wasn't the rush hour or even the lunch-hour rush, there were cars everywhere that cars could be. In a 100-yard stretch of bus lane, I counted 11 parked automobiles, and two vans. The drivers were nowhere to be seen, and no loading or unloading was taking place.

There were another seven cars sitting, empty, on a double yellow line, and a further dozen on a single yellow line. Where vehicles were parked legally, others had double-parked beside them. At the junction, some particularly imaginative souls had managed to park across those ramps down from the pavement, blocking access to any users of wheelchairs or pushers of baby-buggies who might have wanted to cross the road.

There were no police around. There were no traffic wardens in sight either. Parking violations here were obviously treated like cannabis use in Brixton, purely as a matter of personal preference. You want to stop disabled people crossing the road? Hey, it's your choice; it's not like you're harming anyone. The one police car I did see sat in the sluggish traffic, as Mondeos and Moronnos passed on the inside, driving down the bus lane, cheekily signalling left, and then nipping right, into the main flow at the last moment.

I cannot imagine what this road is like at 7.30 in the morning. There are tube stations here, and plenty of buses, yet the cars have eaten Burnt Oak.

This week, we discovered that the average daily commuting time in Britain is 46 minutes. Some 87 per cent of journeys are undertaken in a private car. So for every 10-minute country commuter, then (and there are quite a few), there's some poor, foolish sod who is driving for an hour and a quarter. Probably down the A5.

We owe these figures to research carried out for the Commission for Integrated Transport (a body set up in 1999 by Two Jags), and published as part of its Second Annual Report. The CfIT's conclusions were that a half century of under-investment had led to the highest levels of road congestion in the whole of Europe, some of the highest train and bus fares and the longest commuting times. It's chairman, Professor David Begg, described Britain as being in a "situation that forced people into their cars whether they wanted to or not".

Naturally, the Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, quickly found himself up before the media beak, this time in the comfortable shape of James Naughtie. Mr Naughtie informed the Transport Secretary that Labour could no longer go on blaming Mrs Thatcher for the transport mess, since she had been deposed more than a decade earlier. "You've been in power for five years," the notoriously innumerate minister was reminded.

Sorry Jim, but the one thing you can be certain of with transport, is that it is never the fault of the minister sitting in front of you. The condition we travel in was ordained, laid down for us, long, long ago. When Mr Byers told listeners that he accepted this government "would be judged on whether it improves the transport system", he should have added, "but not for 20 years". Right now, we are living with the legacies of Lord Beeching, Sir Norman Fowler and a grey list of nonentities from the newsreel days of Ted and the two Harolds. Only when you do something genuinely catastrophic – like privatise the railways in the way that John Major did – can you affect transport outcomes quickly.

Now lets quarrel. Professor Begg, in that sentence I quoted, is clear on the chain of causality. Bad and expensive public transport has led to more car use and thus more congestion and hell on earth (or, at least, Burnt Oak). It follows that greater investment will usher in better public transport and thus, eventually, create reduced car use, less congestion and a state of European grace.

There's a logical problem, though. If we suffer from poor public provision, why do we cycle less than half the European average and walk less too? And don't give me the weather. Or the hills. Is it possible (I am thinking) that Professor Begg has got this the wrong way round? That our tendency to use the car more than any other group of Europeans, is actually the cause of low investment in public transport, and not vice versa.

I think we have a cultural problem here, a problem of mass preference, the consequences of which – as ever – we would rather blame on the authorities than on ourselves. Look at what happens whenever the most limited and logical restrictions are suggested on untramelled car use. Speed cameras (we argue) persecute sensible speeders; traffic calming slows up ambulances and fire engines; parking regulations destroy small businesses; road pricing discriminates against the poor motorist. Right now, several city councils, having talked big in the past, are playing a pathetic game of "After you, Claude", with road pricing. They want to see what happens in London (and in brave Durham). If Ken's head is not on a pike by Christmas 2002, then they just might.

Meanwhile, Ken himself is trimming. He's cutting the hours of road pricing because the West End is worried that folk won't go to the theatre otherwise. Yet another excuse. London theatre is uncomfortable and overpriced and a small road toll is marginal, to say the least. If you ask me, the problem is more likely to be the people who work at or own the theatre and who want to use their cars.

Courageous Ken is being circumspect because he is getting it in the neck from the motorists' lobby. And the motorists' lobby is made up of most of us. As a people, we associate public transport with austerity, lack of freedom and relative poverty; and we conceive of private transport as being a vehicle of freedom, wealth and enjoyment. The car is like the semi-detached with garden – the realm of achievable dreams. It has been like this for as long as I can remember.

So why would successive governments impose greater taxes to provide services for an electorate that, on the whole, did not aspire to use them? That aspired, in fact, to get out of them as soon as possible? Like building protection against asteroid attack, why be the ones to tell the British that – one day (who knew when?) – all this would come to a halt? Even now, according to the Begg report, 70 per cent of the public want to widen motorways, 65 per cent to build more by-passes and 40 per cent to build more motorways.

Where I live, over the past few months, a low-intensity war has been waged between various groups of drivers. Driven mad (apt!), the commuters, the residents and the school-runners are hacking lumps out of each other over whose right it is clog up the local roads. The walkers and cyclists, as ever, don't figure. The reason for this warfare is obvious: there is now no more room for any more cars. We are at saturation point.

Professor Begg concluded his report with this sentiment. "The decisions that we take now," he said, "will determine whether we end up with a US-style car culture or a sustainable European multi-modal system." But our man-made geography makes the answer to that. Our cities and towns – unlike the modern American cities – were created before the car. Either we tear them down and start again, or we try and reverse the car culture. Our unarmoured selves need to take on our motorised selves, for both our sakes. We must, we must, we must reclaim the streets.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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