War on the Motorist?

If we make it super convenient for all, it will be the motorists who win, so we must stop designing for motorists.

– Carlton Reid

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An image comparing the amount of precious urban space taken up by the same number of people on various different modes of transport. In itself this is almost a convincing argument for increased pedestrianisation and cycle infrastructure. Image from Australia’s Cycling Promotion Fund.

As Aldous Huxley remarked, ‘speed is the only truly modern sensation’, and high velocity is the defining characteristic of modern cities. The bigger the city, the more prestigious its reputation, the faster the pace of life, and the more things are expected to happen ‘NOW’. In the context of rapidly growing urbanisation, this means more of us than ever are living faster than before. In fact, according to the research of Professor Richard Wiseman and the British Council, the whole world is walking faster than ever before. In comparison to an earlier study in the 90s, Wiseman’s 2006 results show an overall 10% increase in walking speeds. 1

In this fast-paced and ego-centric world, the car has become not only the ultimate symbol of modernity, but the lynchpin of the modern city. Technology was harnessed to serve us, but has shaken off the reins and we have lost control. Ever seeking speed, ease of movement and convenience, we have built cities that cradle the car, and unwittingly invited congestion, overcrowding, and pollution into our outdoor environments.
Some might argue, that it is anti-democratic to limit where the car may go, but democratic equality entails the principle that everyone whose basic interests are affected by policies should be included in the process of making them. Instead, what usually happens is that the decision-making processes are dominated by only some of the interests in society. A true democracy however must ensure that it includes the vulnerable and the voiceless, and in the context of our streets this means inclusion of pedestrians and cyclists. Some even claim, that such actions to restrict car use constitute a ‘war on the motorist’, but as Joe Dunckley writes, this is little more than a ‘tabloid fantasy’2.

In fact, when considered in terms of transportation economics, car driving is subsidised greatly by the general public. This tells us that each system of transportation has three elements; vehicles, rights of way, and terminal capacity. In this case; cars, roads and parking spaces. For vehicles, an enormous terminal capacity is required, and this parking is often provided free of charge to the motorist, but absorbed into the cost of other things – be that supermarket prices, company fees, or taxes. The cost of fuel is also subsidised by the general public through taxation – the UK being the only G7 country to actually be increasing the amount of subsidies paid to oil and gas companies 1.We can see that if motoring, and all of its associated costs, was perhaps placed more at its ‘real cost’ then it might deter motorists from driving, and go some way to rebalance the appeal of these different modes of transportation.

Without this rebalancing, then the status quo remains tipped in favour of motoring, with a hidden cost for everyone., and this economic analysis doesn’t even begin to cover the social and environmental implications of mainstream motoring. Encouraging car use, through subsidies or otherwise, has other consequences, and we can see in the example of Stevenage how despite the fact that car access is restricted from the town centre, it has still seen a decline, and a concurrent growth of out of town retail parks. This is arguably not a bad thing, but in this case the retail park is almost exclusively a function of the car, and it is arguable that restricting car use in the town centre, without encouraging people to go there by other means, actually encouraged this to happen. In Houten however, the pattern of car use created by the ‘filtered permeability’ approach helped to create a vibrant centre.

The only territory to reclaim is the city centre, so this is not a declaration of war, more a rearranging of priorities, a recognition of the requirement of the car for long term journeys, and its redundancy as an agent of in our environments which should cater primarily to an unaugmented humanity.

Footnotes

1. https://waronthemotorist.wordpress.com

2. Carrington, Damian, 2015. UK becomes only G7 country to increase fossil fuel subsidies. The Guardian, 12 November 2015.