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The great car debate


Congestion, pollution, accidents - the costs are just too high, writes Christian Wolmar


t's not cars I hate. It's what we have allowed them to do to us. They dominate our environment, our daily routine, our very lives. There is no doubt that if our Edwardian forebears had known what the car would do to us, they would have never have dispensed with the man carrying the red flag in front of every vehicle.

Look at the damage that our obsession with the car is wreaking. There are the obvious disbenefits such as air pollution which has made inhalers common in every primary classroom, and the environmental damage caused by road-building which had Middle England up in arms a few years ago.

But there are all the hidden aspects, too. Take the impact on our communities. A fascinating study in San Francisco in the 1970s showed that people living on main roads with lots of traffic knew far fewer of their neighbours than the residents of quieter streets nearby. The very cohesion of their communities was determined by how many cars passed their front door.

Look at what happens to children whose independence has been taken away by the car. Confined to their houses through their parents' fear of traffic, they become obese and unhealthy. They are driven to schools in cars protected by bull bars through fear they may be run over and no one notices the irony or is prepared to do anything about it.

We have, too, become inured to the fact that every week, twice as many people are killed on the roads as in the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster. Our new-found mobility exacts a terrible toll. And for what? Many of the extra journeys have been created by the car. Local facilities, whether they be shops, hospitals or cinemas, have been shut down and replaced by much larger ones much further away. The amount we travel every day has doubled in the past 25 years and is set to double again in the next quarter of a century. And the car itself has generated much of that extra travel.

At root, the problem is that each individual who buys a car gains considerable benefit through the mobility it affords them. But for society, there is an enormous disbenefit since each car adds to congestion, making bus services less viable. The total disbenefit for society of the right to own and drive a car with utter freedom is far greater than the individual benefits.

I am not advocating a car-free society. I own one myself, though I use it much less than my bicycle. Of course many journeys are difficult without one, and many people have a genuine need. But there are millions of marginal journeys where alternatives could be used.

However, we have to bring the car under control. Cars are allowed to bully their way through towns and cities because they are bigger than cyclists and pedestrians. So, in housing areas, we should reverse the priority between vehicles and people on all but our main roads, creating streets that can be used safely by children to play in and allowing them to cycle and walk to school. In city centres, vehicles should be banned to create pleasant environments for shopping and leisure.

The century of the car is just ending. Within a couple of decades of the next one, let's hope society learns to tame the monster it created.

"Stagecoach" by Christian Wolmar is published this week (Orion, pounds 9.99).


It's a question of freedom, convenience and women's safety, argues Jackie Ashley


hy do I love my car? Because. In my car there are no fat City gents who splutter, sneeze and generally spray their germ-soaked mucus over me. In my car there are no nutters trying to catch my eye and berate me about the sins of a godless world. In my car I don't have four gangling, angry youths chucking their cans of Coke around them. This week on one short journey by Tube from Westminster to Hammersmith, in west London, I managed to catch all of the above.

Because remarkably, when I leave the house and go to it, I don't have to wait for 30 minutes before climbing in. It's there for me, I don't have to loiter endlessly waiting for it. Which is more than you can say for the number 33 bus.

Because it is a warm, protective bubble in a chilly world, infused with Schubert, Beethoven or Eric Clapton, depending on mood.

Because I am a woman. From my first driving lesson on the day of my 17th birthday - and passing the test six weeks later - it has represented safety and liberation. I have had the odd bump, I admit, and did once swear at a taxi driver who then came over, leaned through the open window, ripped my keys from the ignition and held them dangling over a nearby drain until I grovelled. But that apart, my car means freedom and security.

Because. I am not a man. Have you noticed how many of the urban cyclists are tough, lean and mean men as macho as they come, surfing the traffic? I am no surfer.

Young men rarely have to struggle on to buses with three young children, a pushchair and several bags of shopping. (Sometimes you lose the shopping. Sometimes it's a child.) They aren't scared by the streets at night, as I am, and likewise millions of women .

Women are more concerned with their "space" than men seem to be; and a car is a moveable personal space, a bit of domesticity on wheels.

Because it's all relative. Do I worry about pollution and gridlock? Yes. Do I worry that we don't walk enough these days? Yes. But a car is just too damn practical. Leaving work or a social engagement late in the evening there is a choice before you: you can hang around waiting for a train or bus, with a long, dark walk home at the other end; or you can jump in the car and drive yourself safely door to door.

Because, like millions of others, I want to spend my money on the convenience of a car. Will I be put off by tolls and parking charges? I think not, unless they are truly crippling.

I have to admit that since I lost my parking space at work a year ago, I now grumble my way into town on public transport. I'd give a lot to get it back. And short of growing several humps on my back to carry the shopping, I'm never going to the supermarket on foot either.

Because cars are beautiful. Well, not my current all-family people mover, perhaps. But I can dream. While men may get off on shiny red sports cars, I have a different lust. There's a new VW Beetle - reminiscent enough of the bright orange Beetle I drove in my twenties, but with a futuristic magic to it now. Are you listening out there, Father Christmas?