Natasha Walters: Forget congestion charging â¿“ I want a city free from the curse of cars

I find people's emotional, almost mystical, reliance on cars utterly bewildering
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The Independent Online

Who would have thought that Ken Livingstone's proposal for a congestion charge in London would have spawned such a lot of fuss and bother? It's the start of a new "war against motorists", according to one tabloid. Every objection you can imagine has been raised: motorists pay too much tax anyway, there's no space on public transport, it will increase traffic around London, it will spawn huge bureaucracy.

Never has the deadlocked intransigence of the British motorist seemed clearer, happy to go on and on chugging at a couple of miles an hour through streets made filthy and miserable because of the choked lines of traffic, and fearsome in their loathing of anyone who tries to change anything.

But I object to this scheme too, on the grounds that it's so unambitious. Most motorists will simply swallow the £5 charge and go on driving. It's too little, and since it won't be on stream until 2003, it's too late. Why didn't Ken go for a big plan, and then scale it down, rather than starting off with something so teeny that if it's watered down at all, nobody will even notice it?

A couple of times in the past few years, London has shown a new face to its residents. Once was on the afternoon of Millennium Eve, when the capital was closed to cars so that people could party. On that bright winter day, I remember looking up Haymarket towards Piccadilly, a vista that you can never usually see, blocked as it is by a hundred steel boxes, and a friend saying to me, "Now that Londoners can see their city looking so grand, they won't want the cars back."

The other was on May Day, when the centre of the capital was closed so that people could protest. I was one of many people wandering about a rainy Oxford Circus, hoping to find a channel for anger against global iniquity, and finding myself cheering a naked man straddling a lamp post. But one thing showed the power of the protesters; the fact that the police had closed the whole of the shopping centre of London to traffic. Suddenly the whole grimy length of Oxford Street seemed alive – it had been reinvented; it was no longer a dead place that you marched along as quickly as possible, trying to avert your eyes from the street and to close your ears to the roar. It was a place that seemed full of colour and movement, of people rather than metal, of voices rather than engines. Again, the thought crossed my mind that now that Londoners had seen how much more alive the city seemed without cars, the desire to release the streets from the choking traffic would grow.

That's the dream that the mayor should have put forward: a city without cars. Delivery vans, yes, emergency vehicles, public transport, bicycles, a fleet of electric taxis – and nothing else. Nothing at all. Not that armoured car for Tony Blair or that people carrier taking a lonely child to a distant school or that Mondeo for the sales rep. Nothing.

Then the Sun could have done its squeaking with some reason. As it is, a £5 charge has been taken as some kind of threat to civilisation as we know it. "The toll tax," they are calling it, in order to raise memories of the unjust poll tax.

If I find all this kerfuffle a little bewildering, that's because I find people's emotional, almost mystical, reliance on cars utterly bewildering. Who are these people, interviewed in this newspaper yesterday, who live in Kennington and are furious about the prospect of the congestion charge because it will mean they will have to pay to get in their cars to "fetch a newspaper"? Have they discovered some unmapped part of Kennington, a secret wilderness hidden in a lonely valley, far from the madding crowd, where you have to travel for hours to get to the local corner shop? No doubt the people who just have to get in their car to "fetch a newspaper" in Kennington are the same people who are taken in by the dream semaphore of car advertisements. There are two things we all know about driving in this country; it's slow and it's bad for the environment. There are two things that you'd imagine about driving if you believed car advertisements: it's fast and it's the best thing you can do for the environment.

Take, for instance, the new advertisement for the Peugeot 307. It boasts a photograph of an attractive thirtysomething couple, the woman sporting what looks like a cushion stuffed up her natty black top to give her a pregnant belly. "3 lives. 1 planet. 0 compromise," runs the slogan. Why would you buy this unremarkable looking red car? The caption elucidates, "Because future generations will thank you." No, Peugeot, they won't. You may have built the cleanest engine in the world, but no car is fuelled by virtue alone. To pretend otherwise is just hot air, and that's something our planet needs less of, not more.

But when it comes to cars, everyone seems to be living in fantasy land. The advertisements that don't pretend that cars are as green as a compost heap pretend that if you get into your new car you'll be the only one on a mountain road, doing zero to 150 in 20 seconds. Everyone loves speed, but some of us have managed to work out that more and more and more cars mean that everyone is travelling more slowly. We can see that car drivers are stuck in a jam, doing an average of 10 miles an hour in central London. But in their dreaming minds they've got their foot down on the open road, and they just need those top speeds that go way above the speed limit.

It would be so funny if it wasn't rather tragic. On another page of your newspapers yesterday you might have noted another story about cars, one that will fade out an awful lot more quickly than all the outrage over the congestion charge. That was the story that high-speed police car chases have killed 25 people in the past year and injured 2,000 more. Twenty-five people! If those 25 had been mown down in some handgun massacre or crushed in a rail crash, the outrage would never have ceased. But cars are now seen as some inescapable force of nature, without cause, without blame.

Given this culture of car worship, I wouldn't be surprised if even Ken Livingstone's rather weedy proposal never got off the ground. Who cares if London is becoming less livable by the day, so long as you can strap yourself into an air-conditioned box, put something sweet on the car stereo, and dream?