The classist war on the car

The unique freedom of car-driving is being pummelled by bourgeois anti-modernists.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics Science & Tech UK

Back in the early Eighties, two things revolutionised my mum’s life. The first was the appearance, nearby, of a vast supermarket. A gleaming metal-and-glass citadel of cheap, fresh produce. Imagine – bread, milk, fish, meat, fruit, veg and treats all under one roof. It was the stuff of a housewife’s dreams. The second was her first car. The rush of liberty she got from her wheezing, second-hand Ford Cortina is likely unimaginable to the 21st-century mind. Everyone has a car now, if not two. We take for granted being able to zoom everywhere, anytime, rain or shine. It was different then. The motorcar was no ordinary convenience – it was the great liberator from slog.

It is hard to describe to people who have grown up in the era of Amazon, Deliveroo and near-universal car ownership just how much time women would spend traipsing to shops. The number of woman-hours lost to filling the larder – yes, it was mainly woman-hours back then – was extraordinary. I remember it (kids were always in tow, for where else would we be?): first to the fishmonger, then the butcher’s, then the greengrocer’s, then the bakers, lugging your acquisitions in bulging bags as you went. Saturdays were almost entirely given over to shopping, on the high street a couple of miles away. But then came the supermarket, and the Cortina, and everything changed, utterly. My mother gained a whole new day of the week. She finally had Saturday.

Fast forward a few decades and what do today’s bourgeois radicals loathe most? Supermarkets. And cars. They sneer at those soulless huge stores in which the witless clientele ‘slump from place to place… listless and depressed’. ‘Supermarkets are evil’, they cry, with their ‘revolting wastefulness’. Cheap food and easy fashion horrify the well-off. They lament ‘supermarket white bread’, which is apparently as unhealthy as ‘a packet of crisps’. Yes, why won’t you little people buy a loaf of Seven Seeded Sourdough from Whole Foods? Celebrated novelist Jeanette Winterson says she doesn’t go anywhere near supermarkets because she wants ‘passion, commitment [and] conscience’ from the shopping experience. Okay. But other people might just want a pint of milk and some ham.

As for cars – nothing gets up the noses of the eco-orthodox middle classes as much as the sight of these four-wheeled machines trundling through their neighbourhoods. Motorphobia is rife among the bourgeois left. As cars ‘clog our streets’, we are ‘struggling to breathe’, cries a writer for the Guardian, conjuring up a beautiful image of metropolitan types going about like Edwardian ladies, a hanky at the nose to protect them from the fumes of the little people’s vehicles. ‘Get rid of your car’, barks one of the Guardian’s environment correspondents. Governments have got to wise up to the eco-calamity that will befall mankind if cars are not ‘removed from the street altogether’, he says.

The motorphobes might finally be getting their way. These high-status citizens who cannot comprehend why everyone doesn’t do what they do – work from home, cycle to the artisan baker for some organic rye, only drive a car when it’s absolutely essential during the summer jaunt in Tuscany – might finally see their streets ‘unclogged’ of the masses’ beastly automobiles. Across England, policies are being introduced to discourage, or outright render impossible, the driving of cars in local areas. From Low Traffic Neighbourhoods to ‘15-minute cities’, from ugly bollards to gates that only allow public buses to pass through, the car is being ground to a halt. We cannot let the liberty of driving be snuffed out so cavalierly, and undemocratically.

The Telegraph has the latest on the bureaucratic war on the car. Bristol council, it reports this week, is planning to bring in a massive LTN that will virtually ‘take cars off the road’. As part of a £6million initiative called the East Bristol Liveable Neighbourhood, the council will severely clamp down on traffic on several key roads in the city’s east. Bollards and planters will be used to block cars from these roads. There’ll also be ‘the installation of gates’ that private cars won’t be able to go through, only buses. Get back on the bus, plebs. Ditch that freedom to go anywhere you want whenever you want and instead sit down and shut up on an omnibus vehicle that your superiors have decreed to be more eco-friendly.

Restrictions on car-use are being enforced everywhere. The London borough of Southwark has raised the price of parking permits by an eye-watering 400 per cent in order to reduce car numbers. So if you’re filthy rich, you can still drive to Southwark; if you’re poor, forget about it. Hackney, also in London, wants to make three-quarters of its roads into LTNs. That is, motorists will find it significantly harder to access a full 75 per cent of the roads they once freely drove down. Oxford county council is carrying out a trial this year that will block private cars from accessing six major roads in the city centre. Another big idea in urban planning is the ‘15-minute city’, which basically means restructuring city life so that people can access everything they need on Shanks’s pony rather than in filthy cars.

The adjective ‘liveable’ is always thrown around by the eco-elites who hate cars. But who, exactly, will find cities ‘liveable’ under today’s anti-car hysteria? Not disabled people, that’s for sure. Indeed, equalities campaigners in Oxford and Bristol have said it could become ‘very difficult for some disabled people to access streets’ if LTNs are ruthlessly enforced. Not busy mums, either. And not elderly people, who probably don’t fancy lugging their shopping on to a bus. And not workmen, deliverymen, people who have tools. Car-free streets are all well and good for WFH graphic designers who only ever carry a slimline Macbook as they stroll to a nearby barista bar, but they’re not so good for the people who plumb that barista bar, and fix its coffee machines, and mend its shelves. Those people need stuff, and they need automobiles.

In the warped narrative of the motorphobes, car-owners are part of ‘the privileged’. This is nonsense. It is not prohibitively expensive to own a car in the 2020s. No, the true ‘privileged’ in this clash are the pyjama classes, the upper-middle-class movers and shakers who can work from their plush apartments and who are so time-rich that they’ll happily do what people like my mother hated doing: skip from small shop to small shop, buying artisan loaves here, Duchy sausages there. Nothing better speaks to class privilege these days than hatred for the car and love for the ‘15-minute city’. It is a kind of bourgeois mimicry of the plain lives people led in the era before cheap food and mass car ownership. Only with the risks and pressures removed. The 15-minute-city elites know that if they don’t make it to the trendy butcher’s on time, they can always call on some put-upon member of the precariat to deliver them a £20 dirty burger for dinner. Believe me, it wasn’t like that in the Eighties.

‘The car is unique – it gives human beings a mandate to go wherever they want, whenever they want’, said Pehr Gyllenhammar, CEO of Volvo from 1970 to 1994. We once celebrated that mandate. We sang about it. People my age will fondly remember the Madness lyrics: ‘I like driving in my car / It don’t look much but I’ve been far.’ Now this mandate is being taken away from us. Under the banner of ‘saving the planet’, a smug, anti-modern, classist layer of society is denying the ‘unique’ liberty of car-driving to more and more people. It is intolerable. Every assault on the car should be understood as an assault on our autonomy, and should be resisted as such.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics Science & Tech UK


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today