Welcome to the stay-at-home society

A new anti-movement movement is trying to put the brakes on cars and planes. Do they want to propel us back to medieval times?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Here is the news for the weekend of 2 and 3 December:

In London, ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, the mayor, held his first West End VIP Day – VIP standing for ‘Very Important Pedestrians’. The mayor banned cars, buses and taxis from Oxford Street and Regent Street between 10.30am and 5pm on Saturday, so that shoppers could shop without having to ‘dodge vehicles’. A report commissioned by the British government floated various ideas for relieving gridlock and congestion on British roads – no, not by building more roads, but by introducing a national road-pricing scheme where motorists will be charged for driving on motorways and A-roads. And finally, EU bigwigs in Brussels finalised plans to enforce ‘carbon quotas’ on airlines, which could see the price of flights go up by 40 Euros as passengers are charged for the impact their journeys have on the climate (1).

Welcome to the stay-at-home society. It seems the only ‘innovation’ in transport these days is to find new ways to punish us for using it: motorists will effectively be fined for driving their cars, and the cost of cheap flights – which allow people of all income levels (and even none) to jet around Europe – could be more than doubled. Modern forms of travel, which any progressive society should take for granted, are now seen as luxuries that we can ill-afford; selfish indulgences enjoyed by those hardnosed and uncaring sections of society. A new anti-movement movement wants to put the brakes on cars and planes and propel us back to a medieval state of affairs, where we only leave our local patch if we really, really must, and have to pay a big fat toll to a big fat sheriff for the privilege of doing so. Honk if you think this is out of order.

Today’s narrow vision for transport and travel is clear in the Eddington Transport Study published last week by the UK Department for Transport (which really ought to be renamed the Department against Transport). Written by Sir Rod Eddington, former chief executive of British Airways, the study argues that Britain’s road system is clogged up with cars. But instead of reaching the logical conclusion that more roads are required to accommodate these cars, it suggests making driving by car more expensive and thus less attractive. In short: ease congestion on the roads by forcing people off the roads.

After the launch of the study, the secretary of state for transport Douglas Alexander ‘ruled out more road-building as a solution’, arguing that: ‘Most informed commentators realise we can’t simply build our way out of the challenge of congestion.’ (2) This has become a mantra in government circles, always asserted but never explained. The Department for Transport’s big 2004 report The Future of Transport declared no fewer than three times that ‘We cannot build our way out of the problems we face’; a similar sentiment is expressed in the Eddington Study (3). In fact, building more roads looks like a simple and obvious solution to the apparently terrible problem of congestion. Indeed, it would appear to be successive governments’ reluctance to build more roads that caused today’s congestion problems. In 2004, British motorists travelled a total of 306 billion miles, more than three times the number of miles travelled 40 years earlier in 1964 (95 billion miles); and there were around four times as many licensed private cars in 2004 as there were in 1964: 26 million compared with seven million back then. And yet over this 40-year period, as car ownership quadrupled and car journeys trebled, total road length in Britain increased by approximately 20 per cent, from 200,000 miles in 1964 to 245,000 miles in 2004 (4).

I don’t know if I’m one of those ‘informed commentators’ referred to by Douglas Alexander (who apparently all recognise that we cannot build our way out of congestion), but I do know that if you don’t build enough roads to accommodate the rising number of cars, then there will be traffic jams. It’s simple maths, innit? And yet one of the reasons the Eddington Study proposes national road tolls is as a means of putting off, forever, the need to build more and better roads. It argues: ‘A national scheme [of road pricing] is estimated to reduce the case for inter-urban road build beyond 2015 by some 80 per cent…. Pricing also has the potential to have positive air quality benefits by providing for freer-flowing traffic [while] reducing the need for new infrastructure build.’ (5) For all the talk of road tolls as a short-term solution to the problem of congestion – as has been suggested by various commentators who support the road-pricing measures – in fact they are intended to be a long-term solution to the government’s unwillingness to invest in ‘new infrastructure build’.

Indeed, the Eddington Study proposes shutting down the debate, for once and for all, about whether Britain needs more targeted solutions such as road-pricing or a grander vision of a new and improved road network. It says that, ‘[T]he UK needs to decide between: a very significant road build programme, or widespread pricing with much more moderate road build’. It then concludes, unsurprisingly, that ‘congestion-targeted road pricing is the most cost-effective and flexible way to deliver the benefits of reducing unreliability and to tackle congestion’. And finally it recommends (seriously, in Recommendation 3.3) to: ‘Stop the debate on whether to do this, and move on to debating how to do it.’ (6) So screw all of those who think Britain needs a ‘very significant road build programme’: that debate is over, and now we must focus on the finer points of how to charge drivers a tenner every time they venture more than a few miles from their front doors.

Meanwhile, London mayor Ken Livingstone is doing his bit to keep car drivers in their place, announcing that he plans to extend his congestion charge outside of central London and charge bigger cars in Tax Band G £25 a day for the luxury of driving in the capital. That could cost some motorists £6,000 a year. Yet the idea that congestion in London is caused by too many cars – by school-run mums, wideboy businessmen in BMWs, and the rest – doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact, again the problem seems to be too little road space. Writing on spiked when the congestion charge was introduced in 2003, Edmund King of the RAC Foundation pointed out there are fewer roads in London than in the past, due to a widening of pavement space, increased pedestrianisation, more bus lanes, and so on; he also pointed out that in 2001 there were 35,000 fewer cars entering London in the morning than there were in 1991, and ‘traffic levels have fallen by 18 per cent [between 2001 and 2003]’ (7).

As with the road pricing scheme, Livingstone’s congestion charge punishes individual motorists for what are officialdom’s own failures: its failure to build more and decent roads both in and around London.

If you’re thinking of jetting off to sunnier or more relaxed climes to escape all this anti-movement miserabilism, think again – or at least be prepared to pay more than usual. Stavros Dimas, the EU environment commissioner, is expected to announce new laws this week which will enforce annual emissions limits on airlines. It is presented as a clampdown on Big Airlines that carelessly damage the environment, but in fact, as The Times points out, it is ‘cheap flights that are under threat’ – the costs are likely to be borne by passengers. This new measure seems to be motivated by a killjoy-ish suspicion of what is deemed ‘unnecessary travel’. A recent study by The Economist found that aviation’s contribution ‘to total man-made emissions worldwide is around three per cent’ – way below the contributions of industry, electricity generation, and other modes of transport (8). What the dull Dimas and other joyless suits in Brussels really dislike about air travel (especially the cheap variety) is that it seems frivolous and fun, and we can’t have any of that.

So it is okay for Dimas and the rest to transport the whole European Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg once every month – which involves transporting 732 MEPs, 2,000 parliamentary staff and hundreds of other EU officials hundreds of miles by coach, train and plane at a cost of 209 million Euros each time – but it is not okay for the rest of to take a cheap jaunt to Spain once a year. Double standards, or what?

One of the greatest advances of the past 200 years has been man’s ability to travel beyond his garden gate – to move to cities, visit different continents, meet various peoples, and broaden his horizons. The horse and cart was replaced by the car, and the long-haul ship by the aeroplane, as we began to view the world outside our windows as something to be explored and enjoyed rather than as something strange and dangerous. Yet today, six years into the twenty-first century, our rulers look down their noses at free and easy travel and do all they can to clamp down on it. Maybe they want us to stay in our local towns, like our peasant forebears did, and only travel beyond what we know when it is strictly necessary to do so.

They should bear in mind the words of aviation innovator Wilbur Wright: ‘The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors, who in their gruelling travels in prehistoric times looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space.’ Sir Rod, Ken and Stavros Dimas can partake in prehistoric ‘gruelling travels’ if they like; most of the rest of us would rather soar freely like birds in aeroplanes, or like cheetahs in our cars.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Transport

(1) Airline carbon quotas planned by Brussels, The Sunday Times, 3 December 2006

(2) National road tolls ‘in 10 years’, BBC News, 3 December 2006

(3) Eddington Transport Study, Department for Transport

(4) Eddington Transport Study, Department for Transport

(5) Eddington Transport Study, Department for Transport

(6) Eddington Transport Study, Department for Transport

(7) See Driven to distraction, by Edmund King

(8) The sky’s the limit, The Economist, 8 June 2006

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Topics Politics


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