How the car became king

19th June 20200 comments

I previously asked why our transport system has such massive cost and carbon impact, when travel is not a fundamental human need.

The statistics are familiar. In less than 70 years – less than a lifetime – car travel in the UK has increased seven-fold (pre-lockdown). This has led to a big increase in the overall distance we each travel, without substantial reduction in our use of most other modes.

Instead, our personal travel has increased to a level that would seem extraordinary to previous generations. Also extraordinary would be the increase in intensity and stress of our lives, the loss of casual neighbourly contact on the streets outside our homes, and the reduced scope for children’s independence.

The time we spend travelling each day has not changed (about one hour – which holds across all cultures), nor are we each making more journeys (instead, that’s now decreasing). Instead, we are going further, faster.

Most of our journeys are still relatively local, routine and functional, yet are rarely exactly identical. It is now quite rare to find a 9-5 job with set working hours that can align with pre-set bus schedules. Furthermore, many of our journeys involve stops (e.g for shopping, childcare) on the way, which has made fitting our lives around fixed schedule public transport much less feasible.

Meanwhile, cyclists have largely been forced off the road, as have pedestrians unless dedicated footways are available – and these are uncommon in rural areas.

I remember the ‘Mr Toad’ character from the children’s story ‘The Wind in the Willows’, arrogantly sweeping roads clear of anyone who got in the way of his speeding. In doing so, the original Mr Toads left the roads clear for more careful drivers to be able to assume pedestrians will not stray off the footway, or to go round corners with the tacit assumption of not facing unexpected obstacles – a trend backed by highway design parameters that similarly remove dangers.

So the private car has come to dominate our transport system – except near the centres of major cities, especially (in the UK) London. There, a car is unnecessary and, indeed, a considerable cost and nuisance to own – and the relatively few cars have disproportionate impact on others.

Yet in cities, people’s mobility needs (with some accessibility exceptions) are being met, giving everyone (including the less well-off) scope to travel without pre-planning or forethought.

That scope to flexibly meet our mobility requirements with relatively low external impacts should and, I will show later, could be the outcome for everyone, everywhere. Yet even in London, too much personal travel has still been required to meet our functional needs – as shown during the Covid-19 lockdown.

This very brief summary omits much, not least the roles of political and commercial pressures, of disparate public funding levels, and of relationships to evolving urban and suburban built-forms. But it does set the ground for the next two blogs, which cover early responses by the transport sector, then why our response to Covid-19 is unlikely to meet the scale of the changes now required.

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Image by Tom Parrish from ArtStation. Used with kind permission from the artist.

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