War on the motorist?

Alright, now that Transport Minister Philip Hammond has repeated his claim that he would reverse New Labour’s “war on the motorist”, it really is time to comment on what is nothing less than an inversion of reality. Seasoned campaigners and hardened professionals alike were gob-smacked when he first mentioned this phrase. But as – we hope – polite professionals who work, one way or another, with Government, we desisted from saying what first came to mind.

But now we are prompted by a rather good Editorial in the 2nd September Guardian which leads: “Unthinkable? Declaring war on motorists: When the transport secretary said ‘We will end the war on motorists’, the obvious question was: what war on motorists? Regrettably, the article restricts itself to suggesting the subsidising of public transport, but does at least refer to the reduced cost of motoring brought in by the previous Government.

Of course, in a sense there has been a “war on motorists”: a continuation of unnecessary levels of danger on the road which many motorists are prepared to oppose and from which they may suffer.

Many would like to have a greater option for themselves and their families to use more sustainable transport and to have more people-friendly communities. They might not want scarce public money to be squandered on road building, or the damage to public health and the local and global environment from current levels of car use. Although they may be a minority of the motoring public, they are still motorists and want a more civilised, less car-centred society: they have had a war against them.But that’s not what the Minster is talking about. So perhaps the following could be pointed out – and they really are just a few parts of the story:

These are a few points which could be brought to the attention of the Minister. As with so much in transport policy and road safety, what we have is not so much a mistake as – this needs to be repeated – an inversion of reality.

1. The massive increase in car travel under New Labour.  On 6th June 1997 Transport Minister John Prescott said:

“I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it”

 Forecasts published by Prescott’s department for 2007 at the time of his 1997 statement, based on the assumption that there would be no real interventions to reduce or control rising motor traffic, such as effective methods of replacing car usage by alternatives such as public transport, walking or cycling were:

  • Registered motor vehicles +27% = +6.85 million *  Traffic (vehicle miles) +35%, (as average mileage per vehicle was set to increase as well as the increase in registered motor vehicles).

Over the following 10 years registered motor vehicle numbers and motor traffic went up in accordance with the 1997 forecast. On May 16 2007 John Prescott said: “I had never envisaged we would have 7 million new cars. It has created real problems.”

From 1997 to 2008 the costs of motoring as measured against the Retail Price Index (which does not include the cost of housing) fell by 13% while public transport costs increased.

2. The failure to support alternatives. Unlike the Guardian’s editorial, transport professionals know that alternatives top car dependence are not just (or at all) about pumping money into public transport, but about supporting local communities, cycling and walking and alternatives to travel. Under New Labour the Road Traffic Reduction Act and the National Cycling Strategy were dropped. Restrictions on car dependent developments, real support for everything from car-sharing to home-working – well, you should know the answer.

Despite the victories of the anti-road building movement in the early 90s, we have had the continuation of road building projects. The only attempt to restrict car traffic is a very limited scheme in the least car dependent part of the UK (central London) for the wealthiest motorists, which was associated with a major road building (Thanes Gateway) project.

 3. The increased need to reduce car dependence and motor traffic. While New Labour had an awareness of global warming when it first came to power, the evidence for it and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has become greater. The health problems generated by sedentary lifestyles have been illustrated by more and more evidence. The old issues of congestion, noxious emissions, loss of public space etc. remain or are even more obvious.

4. Making motoring cheaper: motorists are not paying their way. The decline in the price of motoring has been mentioned above and in the Guardian editorial. We have a longer discussion on this at https://rdrf.org.uk/2010/01/a-very-moderate-suggestion/ and https://rdrf.org.uk/2010/05/a-very-moderate-suggestion-part-2-%e2%80%93-increase-the-price-of-petrol/  . There has always a case for pointing out that the external costs of motoring (as calculated by perfectly conventional economists) are not covered by motorists. The idea of “paying for the road” plays a part in all too many motorists’ bigotry against other road users, particularly cyclists.

But there are additional reasons for raising this issue now: given the imminent public spending cuts, might it not be an idea for transport professionals to raise the alternative of increased cuts in motoring?

 Furthermore, reductions in motor traffic reduce the attractiveness of road building – a form of public spending. And bribing motorists out of their cars with large scale spending on public transport is always difficult: cheaper schemes to support smarter alternatives can be attractive to politicians – although increasing costs of motoring should be on the agenda as well.

5. Continuing road danger. Tolerance of illegal motoring behaviour is, well, tolerance of anti-social, if not life-threatening behaviour. RDRF is principally about this aspect: do go to    https://rdrf.org.uk/2009/10/a-safer-way-making-britain%e2%80%99s-roads-the-safest-in-the-world-2/ to see what we thought about Philip Hammond’s Department’s efforts in this area under New Labour.


So we have had a war for cheaper motoring at a time when there were plenty of increased financial problems – not least purchasing housing – before the credit crunch and the now imminent spending cuts.

 In the same issue of the Guardian referred to above, Polly Toynbee http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/oct/01/conservative-conference-public-sector-cuts addresses professionals with knowledge of the effects of Government policies: “Professional associations and managers in the public sector, specialist charities, quangocrats, thinktanks and institutes concerned with health, economics and social policy – experts of all kinds are zipping their lips.” And:  “The dangerous result of the silence of the clerks … is that neither government nor people hear what they should from genuine expert opinion”

This applies to transport professionals as much as anybody else. Of ocurse, there is a deep-rooted tendency to feel that the Great British Motorist must be able to drive when, how, why or where (s)he wants more cheaply while being told (s)he is an oppressed victim. For them, there will always be a feeling that they having war declared on them. But that doesn’t mean one actually is.

We need to inform them and those we work for of the true facts. Perhaps some close to the Minister could have a go at getting him to get his world-view the right way round.

Dr. Robert Davis Chair, RDRF 3rd October