Let’s ban cars

by Joseph Markus

If (former Labour MP) Chris Mullin ruled the world… Admittedly, it’s unlikely to happen – and I have no clue what other policies he would, in his autocratic wisdom, decide to enact – but at least one idea made a lot of sense. In a piece (£) published by Prospect Magazine, he makes the case for “a return to that brief golden age when the bicycle was king, when every little town and many villages were connected to the railway network, and when our inner cities were habitable”.

My daily experience of cycling in inner-city London (as well as earlier experiences in Manchester) has taught me that the roads are busy, congested and, at times, scary places. Especially in London, while there are many careful, safe and considerate drivers, equally there are many others who are impatient, drive over-large and over-wide vehicles with little regard for the cyclist stuck in the gutter, and who, at times, demonstrate an obvious – shocking – disregard for the safety of those bold enough to set out on two wheels.

Of course, one of the flaws that comes out of almost all sensible discussion of cycling and road policy, is that both sides tend to generalise. So: all cyclists are law-breakers, cycle on pavements, are abusive and inconsiderate. And: all car-drivers, necessarily, are shepherding their steel boxes of death through over-crowded streets concerned only about getting from A-to-B as quickly, and with as little stress, as possible. Neither of these generalisations will hold all the time, and it reduces the level of any debate to believe in their universal validity.

However, there are kernels of truth in both and, perhaps, they could stem from a common problem: that we are sharing road-space that cannot really accommodate the number of people who use it daily, causing stress and irritation. This, in itself, is redolent of a bigger issue: that there are more vehicles on the roads than at any previous point in history.

To some extent – and this is true both in ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries – ownership of a car is seen as a basic necessity for ‘modern’ living. It provides the freedom to travel openly and widely and to perform a number of functions that would otherwise be a little more difficult and take a bit longer. Car ownership is one of the more visceral reflections of a social ‘policy’ of individualism, and privatisation, that has taken hold of more and more of our social space (as recorded by the late historian, Tony Judt). In a very real sense, owning a car means owning the means to move independently of the state: your freedom (of movement) is now your own.

It’s a great goal; and it would also be an utterly innocuous one if not for the potential fallout of this social policy.

More demand for petrol means more demand for oil; less oil means higher petrol prices; higher petrol prices means fewer (poorer) people can travel by car. More cars means more pollution; higher pollution means more pollution-related illness. More cars can mean fewer people cycling. More air-conditioned-travelling-boxes means less person-to-person interaction, a more fragmented social space, and social isolation at the beginning and end of every (working) day.

These ‘faults’ are by no means inevitable or inevitably damaging. One reaction to higher oil prices by car manufacturers might be more efficient cars. In theory, perhaps, sufficient resources do exist to enable all car-owners to replace their polluting machines with cleaner, greener versions. But it’s worth bearing in mind that the energy output of building (raw materials and construction) and maintaining (they have to be powered by something – excepting hydrogen, this will still be polluting) these cars could still be very high.

If we have truly reached the ‘end of history’ (unlikely) and the liberal-ideal of individualism is going to be sticking around, and if we assume that this ideal should (and will) be rolled out across the world (which, with booming car production/consumption in India and China, it appears to be), we come up against a barrier: we can’t all have cars.

Then, as the price of petrol rises ever higher, the use of the car will split along rich-poor lines. That cannot be good for haulage enterprises and neither is it fair for everyone else.

Chris Mullin

So, to this extent, the hypothetical autocracy of Chris Mullin, at least for me, would be welcome. Ban the use of private cars. Invest in public transport infrastructure. And urge citizens to get on their bikes. Of course, there would need to be some flexibility in this new system. Some – ideally greener – vehicles could be used for businesses that wholly rely on them. Similarly, it should be possible to institute a car-hire scheme – like the London bike-hire scheme – for those who, for example, want to move house or who live in rural areas, or areas less-well-served by existing or future public transport infrastructure.

The goal – banning private cars – says nothing about the means adopted to reach that end. The most effective routes to that end are up for debate. But the direction in which much behavioural research is heading tends to accept that people change their behaviour in response to external stimuli. To that extent, more effective and lasting change is usually better-achieved by means other than traditional mandate and prohibition.

In fact, there are some moves towards combating the rise in car use. One approach to the sustainability problem is making greater use of public forms of transport. This is a move that has seen significant gains in Europe (not including the UK). A New York Times article, from a couple of years ago, reported that a number of large European cities had designated their inner-city areas as pedestrianised and cycle-friendly. Paris, in 2011, planned to trial a partial car-ban in the centre. Although this is a trend that has not found support from the UK Government, which, last year, rejected EU Commission plans to move to car-free city centres by 2050.

Similarly, the Victorians built monuments to train travel (and themselves), throughout the UK and the rest of the empire. This seemingly died with the demolition of the old Euston station and the privatisation of British Rail. But recent moves by the Coalition are promising to re-open a few train lines, shut down during the Beeching cuts: this is a first, and promising, step. Labour’s call for ‘effective renationalisation’ of the railways is even better.

Is this a monumental restriction of individual liberty? Maybe. But, really, much depends on how you look at individual liberty: on whether you think humans should be equally individually free and whether you think that that state of existence should be able to prevail for the foreseeable future. Equity and sustainability (as well as a bit of sociability) are at the core of this proposal. I find it hard to see how those values can sensibly be served by a world of car owners. In any case, the debate is one worth having.

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