Repeated pledges to drive car use down by driving its cost up are stillborn
It is billed as the last weekend of summer but, as this one reminded us, just as often the August bank holiday feels like the start of autumn. So perhaps, rather than dwell on the weather, it should be rebranded as the festival of motorists.
From Coventry to Ormskirk, connoisseurs tuned into the throb of classic cylinders, the M5 was thick with cars and caravans as families fled the Cornish rain and, on B roads in between, others tootled in search of the British Arcadia first promised in the Shell guides 70 years ago. The August bank holiday is the weekend when about half of all Britain’s car owners get behind the wheel, the peak of the year for the noisy opponents of road pricing, tolls, the fuel price escalator and speed cameras, who together amount to one of the largest and most powerful groups politicians face – the motoring lobby.
Last week, the thinktank the IPPR published research suggesting that motorists, contrary to their general feeling of victimisation, are doing relatively well in the recession compared with other travellers. This is partly because chancellors, both Labour and coalition, have trembled at the prospect of a motorists’ revolt. As a result, repeated pledges to drive car use down by driving its cost up are stillborn. As Margaret Thatcher understood, car ownership is a political act. Her opinion that to travel by bus is to make a public admission of failure might be absurd, but for many drivers a car is still an expression of the precious ability to go anywhere, at any time.
Cars are like the superstores that are their by-product, too handy to do without. They are simultaneously symbols of individualism and uniformity. Policymakers, fearful of the reaction to trying simply to price motorists on to public transport, have to think of smarter workarounds, and perhaps their critics, like the Campaign for Better Transport, need to reframe the proposition.
Planning is part of it: building on the green belt, as the coalition is considering, has profound implications for car use. Privatising roads, another plan that George Osborne appears to be pondering, would mean abandoning the most effective tool in reducing it. Huge infrastructure projects, such as high-speed rail, have their merits, but good bike lanes and out-of-town parking tariffs would have a bigger impact on car use.
But when the number of under-20s with a driving licence has fallen from 48% to 35% in the past 20 years, there must be a chance that motoring, one of the defining motifs of the 20th century, is in slow decline. This is no time to claim, as Philip Hammond did as incoming transport secretary in 2010, the end of the so-called war on the motorist. But it might be more effectively pursued by other means.