Tell the Fat Controller road rage is OK by me

Cars are filthy and dangerous. But, without a more appealing alternativ e, we will cling to them
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The Independent Online
This week the car is under attack. It is National Walk to School Week. "Don't Choke Britain" has just been launched by the bicycle-riding Secretary of State for Transport. Since this year marks the 100th anniversary of the manufacture of British cars, Friends of the Earth are celebrating with a campaign called Cars Cost the Earth. For the next few days around the country mock trials will parade the car's many crimes against society.

Filthy, polluting, noisy, murderous, expensive, despoiler of the countryside and destroyer of towns, the car has come to personify selfish individualism; it is the Thatcherite dream machine. The sight of long queues of commuters each encased in their own private gas-guzzler, belching out noxious, global- warming fumes into the faces of cyclists and pedestrians, stands as the spectre of capitalism at its most destructive. Asthmatic babies in buggies breathe in the noxious fumes of the more fortunate. The car has murdered some 450,000 Britons since its invention, and it kills - if we are to believe Friends of the Earth - 50,000 badgers a year. The car is guilty, guilty as charged, and we should be ashamed to be seen riding around in one.

Compare that to Friends of the Earth's lyrical image of the joys of bicycle- riding. Fast, free, cheap, healthy - why aren't we all doing it all the time? Why can't we be more like the Dutch, where 50 per cent of journeys in some towns are by bike? Imagine whirring along, with the wind in your hair, weaving in and out of grid-locked traffic jams on journeys that in London take on average half the time it takes by car. Save-as-you-speed- as-you-exercise, what a beguiling green vision.

Or, at least, why not use public transport? Labour's recent policy document showed how in London at peak times journeys by car take 72 minutes compared with only 63 minutes by public transport. Read a paper or a book as you travel, avoid road rage and feel greenly virtuous.

Well, there are some overwhelmingly good reasons why not. For a start, I have never felt road rage as blindingly ferocious as Northern Line rage or Docklands Light Railway rage. Maximum apoplexy comes at that moment when, weighed down with Tesco shopping bags, waiting on the platform at Canary Wharf, the loudspeaker apologises for another computer failure and suggests all passengers use "alternative means of transport". Such as?

Or perhaps it is when the fat controller decides to terminate the train at Kennington on a sudden humorous whim, turfing everyone out onto a platform already packed tighter than toes in winklepicker shoes. That induces as yet unrealised fantasies of instigating mass rebellion or train-jacking, forcing the driver to continue on to Morden on pain of death with an umbrella hooked round his neck.

Or is it when yet another would-be suicide chooses this spectacularly selfish method of ending it all by jumping under a train in the middle of rush hour at Stockwell station? As for reading a newspaper in comfort - what, with your nose pressed into some man's armpit encased in a pin- stripe that was due at the cleaners six months ago? All commuters in all cities have such tales with which to bore their fellow passengers.

As for cycling, I live far away from work and up a hill. I have tried wobbling along with great buses and sixteen-wheeler bonus-or-bust killer trucks thundering by. I know two people who have died riding bicycles and every driver guiltily knows those terrifying moments when an invisible bike seems to have appeared from a lethal blind spot out of nowhere. I can imagine the mornings - cold, wet, skiddy. What to wear? How do you arrive at work in any fit state for work, exhausted and far too bedraggled for any official interview or press conference?

Now compare all that to the hours of sheer bliss spent in a car. Forget bicycling with the wind in your hair and turn on the heater or the air conditioning or open the sun-roof. Tune in to the Today programme, The Archers or Classic FM. Best of all turn off the mobile phone and savour the only time in the day when you are truly alone - no children, no family, no colleagues, only blissful solitude. Who cares if it takes a bit longer - all the more time for quietude and contemplation, cocooned in a womb- like world of personal space.

Now when the greens see streams of single people in their cars pouring through the streets in rush hour, they start to plan car pools. Why not put five people in every car and reduce the traffic by four-fifths? Organise neighbourhood transit systems and save the globe. Horrors! Travelling to work with a crew of neighbours to make conversation with for an hour a day each way would be torment worse than the blessedly anonymous armpits on the tube. Add to that the wonderful invention of the triangular mug with a rubber bottom, so you can take your cup of tea into the car safely on the dashboard - what more could you want?

I commute to work gnashing my teeth on public transport because it is easier, but only just. I am often tempted to go back to my car. (You hear that, fat controller?) How often, driving a car, I have sighed with delight at the pleasure and luck of living now and not at some other time in history, mellowly grateful for the sybaritic comforts of modern life. Door to door, warm and easy, lazy and content.

Now I have absolutely no interest in any particular car. Indeed I often lose mine in car parks because I forget what it looks like. Any comfortable car that goes will do - forget the Porsches and the turbo-charged penises on wheels. But the car as icon of freedom is a dream machine indeed.

So how do they plan to winkle us out of it? I suggest they consider the fable of the sun and the wind competing to force a man to take off his coat. Blow hard with punitive taxes, restrictions and penalties and we will only wrap our cars around us more closely, punishing them by withdrawing votes. But dazzle us with the sunshine of a public transport system so convenient and enjoyable that it becomes irresistible, then we would relinquish our belching death machines.

Politically, transport is one of the most ideologically fascinating issues. Latter-day socialists dressed up as greens reach for draconian measures with lip-smacking relish, hating the car as the emblem of individualist piggery. But the truth is, people will make canny and precise calculations about how best to travel, partly influenced by cost but more influenced by convenience. Investment in decent public transport (and enticing bicycle lanes) has to come before attempts to force people out of their cars. Politicians of all parties are rightly wary of overly anti-car policies or taxes. But reducing carbon emissions matters. Saving countryside and urban landscapes matters. Clean air matters. People may care about these things, but they will not endure the Northern Line two hours a day to pay for it.

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