“A less car-dependent society would be a better society”

My latest contribution to a continuing debate in Local Transport Today (see my last letter) comes in response to letters from two (I think) extreme advocates of motorisation in issue 646 here*:

My response is in issue 647 as published below:

scan0005The Oxford English Dictionary definition of “fanatic” refers to “excessive and mistaken enthusiasm”. I believe it is accurate to use this word to describe the adherents of the car culture dominating the thoughts and actions of the politicians and civil servants dominating transport policy, as I did in my first letter (LTT 643). I don’t think it is in the least discourteous to describe Mr. Peat, and now Mr. Francis (LTT 646), as being on the extreme wing of this belief system.
Mr. Peat’s argument seems to be that there is a lot of car use in contemporary society, and that therefore that it must be necessary and good. We can, however, live in a less car dependent society and should aspire to do so in order to mitigate the numerous adverse effects of mass car use I referred to. The history of post-war transport in many European conurbations is often one of resisting the temptation to rip out traditional city centres and insert new roads and facilities for car use, going for walking, cycling and public transport instead. All this happens in fairly conventional capitalist, consumerist 20th and now 21st century societies on the same continent as us.
The precise mechanisms for reducing car dependence should actually be up to motorists and their organisations as part of accepting responsibility for their activities, but here are a few suggestions:
1. Enforcing existing road traffic law. Mr. Francis thinks that there is no exemption from the law for drivers. If some 40 – 50% of drivers break the law on speed with impunity in almost all cases, generally ONLY with the exception of enforcement at well-advertised sites, then they are indeed effectively exempt from the law. Just consider enforcing laws on speed, and the extreme cases of illegal behaviour: driving under the influence of drink or drugs, when blind, demented or simply unregistered. There is a problem here in that most offences are committed by the mainstream of typical motorists, which needs to be taken into account with any regime of enforcement focusing on the very worst. But the point is that some motor vehicle use (5%? 10%?) would be reduced by rudimentary enforcement of road traffic law. Then there are simple attempts at a civilised approach to traffic law, such as John Dales suggestion of re-taking “the test” from time to time (Street Talk, LTT 04 Apr), and the current debate on driver liability in civil law in collisions with pedestrians and cyclists to bring us into line with European and other societies (‘Accident liability debated’, LTT 02 May)
2. Re-allocating road space to non-motorised modes and public transport. From filtered permeability and gyratory removal through to basic traffic management techniques, these methods are on the agenda in London and elsewhere in the UK.
3. Paying a reasonable amount. Even conventional cost-benefit analyses – normally used to perpetuate the status quo – indicate substantial underpayment with regard to what economists call the external costs of motoring. Basic costs of living have risen over the last few years, with the costs of housing having risen dramatically over the last few decades – yet the costs of motoring have stayed the same or declined since New Labour came to power in 1997. Increasing fuel prices will be necessary anyway to encourage more fuel efficient cars as well as to avoid losing (inadequate) revenue from motoring.
These measures are justified anyway as part of living in a more civilised society, but would have the effect of reducing car use and dependence. This does not mean that there should be no cars about anywhere; it just means we are aware of the problems associated with mass car use and try to address them.
A key problem as shown by Peat and Francis is that the slightest questioning of motorist privilege leads to a panic stricken assumption that nobody will ever be allowed to drive a car ever again: For Mr. Peat “What are the alternatives? A society based on man-power? Or maybe the horse?” They really do need to stop equating their basic identity with the “right” to drive wherever and however they may want – while identifying themselves as an oppressed minority deserving of special treatment, subsidy and exemption from the law.
Dr Robert Davis, Chair, Road Danger Reduction Forum
LONDON NW10

* As stated before, rather than read my scans, the best thing is to subscribe to Local Transport Today in print or online.

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