Don't fight the car: learn to live with it

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THIS month half a million Britons are exercising a vote in popular democracy. They are buying new cars. Some 200,000 of them did so last Monday, when the new M-registered vehicles hit the road. Add in all the company sales, and the industry expects that, by the end of August, total sales will top the 500,112 reached in August 1989. More people will buy cars this month than in any month ever before.

These people are buying cars despite worries about smog, new parking restrictions, the prospect of rising fuel prices, world-record levels of car theft, the sit-ins to stop road-building and the sneers of the environmental lobbyists. There is surely a simple message in this: most people like cars, even those who don't recognise that they are an inevitable aspect of late-20th-century life.

This observation does not, of course, apply only to the UK. There are about 600 million cars in the world: annual production last year was 33.8 million, and this is projected to rise to more than 40 million by 1997. Allow five people per car and some time around the year 2010 it will be possible to fit the entire population of the globe in the world's car fleet.

For many people, not just the bien pensant liberals of north London, this is a dispiriting prospect: yet more pollution, yet more hours in jams, yet more road deaths. It is from these quite proper concerns that the anti-car lobby draws its support. But if so many people choose to spend their money on new cars, this means that they do not find the pleas of the anti-car lobby credible.

So instead of the knee-jerk, anti-car sentiments which they so often trot out, the pressure groups might like to consider a new approach. Instead of trying to fight against the car, they could redirect their lobbying to try to civilise it. Here are some ways forward.

Pollution. There is an overwhelming case for cutting pollution, and catalytic converters will eventually do that. Meanwhile there is the practical problem of how to improve the existing car fleet. Something like 50 per cent of the emissions from our motor fleet come from the worst 15 per cent of cars. The older the car, generally, the more muck it produces: Cardiff, with an old fleet, has the dirtiest cars, London, with the newest fleet, the cleanest.

To tackle this, the existing provision of the MoT test could be more rigorously applied. Lobbyists could press for the impounding of grossly polluting vehicles and tougher emission controls: Tokyo has managed to halve emissions over the past 20 years, despite an explosion of car ownership. They could call for 'buy-out' schemes, where manufacturers offer trade-ins on older cars.

The lobbyists should also direct their attention to public service vehicles. It is not politically correct to attack buses, particularly if they are run by the public sector, but a large proportion of urban pollution results from badly tuned diesel engines.

Natural resources. There will be no substitute for the internal combustion engine for at least 15 years. Oil is the tightest of the world's main natural resources, with only just over 30 years' supply left at present consumption levels. Even though the oil companies tend to discover each year about the same amount of oil that they have pumped, there is a strong case for economising. A sharp rise in fuel prices would achieve that, for we know from Italian and French experience that higher prices lead to a more fuel-efficient fleet - and it would raise revenues.

Congestion. People talk about road-pricing, city centre bans, electronic tolls and so on. But all require legislation and/or new technology. In fact, congestion in towns can be tackled simply by raising street parking charges. Creating car-free zones in city centres also has merit: witness the success of the anti-terrorist road closures in the City of London. Not only has the inner zone become less congested, but the outer roads are creating less congestion, too. Closure of junctions has evened the flow and hence speeded journey times. There is even a bonus on pollution: it is the stop/start that generates the worst fumes.

There is, alas, no such fix for out-of-town congestion. Here, there is a powerful case for increasing the capacity of the motorway network, even though it is not politically correct to admit this. There is no alternative. Even if one were to double the number of long-distance passenger journeys on the railways, it would be equivalent to only two or three years of traffic growth. In any case, most journeys nowadays are not centre to centre but suburb to suburb. And motorways are roughly 10 times safer than other roads - people who oppose them are implicitly saying they are prepared for more accidents.

Crime. Well, the high level of car crime in a way proves a point: it is not only people who can afford cars who like driving them. . . More seriously, there are technical solutions to car crime, as this week's Which? shows. Some cars are more likely to be stolen than others, and fitting an alarm greatly reduces the likelihood of theft. There are potential solutions to other aspects of car crime, such as driving without insurance. Ireland requires that the insurance certificate should be posted on the windscreen with the tax disc, while in North America they are considering a levy on petrol to cover third party liabilities.

Accidents. We have almost the safest roads in the world: only the Netherlands on some measures is better. Last year we had the lowest number of deaths since 1926 - 3,814 - though that is still far too high. But instead of urging people to forsake cars and walk or cycle instead, the lobbyists should ask whether a more effective method in reducing deaths might not be to encourage greater discipline among pedestrians and cyclists.

Of course we need better segregation of walkers and cyclists from traffic: more controlled crossings and cycleways which are physically separate from cars. But there is little point in putting in traffic lights to control pedestrians when a large minority ignores them - we are a nation of jaywalkers, unlike our counterparts on the Continent, in North America or in Japan. And a large minority of cyclists ignore traffic lights and pedestrian crossings as very few drivers would dare to do.

Even to acknowledge that the car is a way of life today - and a liberating one for most people - is to lay oneself open to a barrage of attacks, often sanctimonious and usually hypocritical. But for people who quite like cars (but would like to see them civilised), there is comfort this month: another half a million people have voted with their chequebooks.