We should aim to create a policy environment in which everyone who wants a car can afford a car, rather than hope for a world where policy makes cars scarcer and more expensive.
Responses to the modest tweaks to net zero policy announced this week by Rishi Sunak, including a five-year delay to the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars, have shown us again the support many have for transport policies which involve forcing us back on to the forms of transport – trains, trams, buses – that saw declining use once personal vehicles became more affordable.
For transport planners working from London offices and living in Zone 1, public transport seems an eminently sensible policy because they can walk out the door and jump on to a bus or pop down an escalator to ride the Tube.
But for most of the country this isn’t an option, nor is there the reasonable prospect of it ever being an option.
The overwhelming majority of travel takes place in a car. In 2019, the last year for figures which weren’t affected by lockdowns, 61 per cent of journeys were taken by car, and 26 per cent on foot.
Just 5 per cent were taken by bus and only 2 per cent by rail. By contrast, in London, 75 per cent of workers go to work by rail.
It may be hard, therefore, for some living in the capital to believe that across swathes of the nation, the car is the only real option.
Even urban West Yorkshire has an area nearly 50 per cent bigger than Greater London containing less than a third of
London’s population. You cannot create a comprehensive public transport system, let alone one based on fixed rails, that removes the need for people to use cars. Nor can you change the truth that people want to use the car.
Planners then play their trump card – lots of people don’t have a car and most of them are poor so therefore we are right to end car dependency. To which my response might be that, perhaps, instead of making cars and driving more expensive and less accessible, we should make it possible for more of those poor people to afford a car.
In any case, many of the low-paid do own a car. We can be confident that, at least outside central London, the people who can’t afford a car would jump at the chance to own one. You only need to stand outside a supermarket in some poorer towns to see a stream of the less well-off loading their week’s shopping into a taxi to know that people want a car. And a sensible transport policy would try to make this possible.
Instead, with net zero, low emission zones and clean-air zones, transport policies are actively anti-car. The message to families who can just afford an old banger is, in effect, to tell them to use the bus.
Assuming, that is, there is a bus for them to use – something that is not the case for millions of rural Britons.
A fairer transport policy would focus as much on cars and taxis as it does on trains and trams.
Instead of making driving expensive, we should try to make it cheaper so more families and more workers have access to more opportunity and more choice.
Give the mobility-challenged free taxi vouchers, allow lower-paid workers to set car or bike loans against their tax, and end policies like the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) scheme that act to limit the choices and opportunities of the poorest.
We are not car-dependent but such vehicles are an integral part of our lives and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Policy should reflect this fact.