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Driving Towards Disaster (February 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

For some people owning a car is essential, but 'individual mobility' isn't always a good thing.

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"I see no parties, only Germans," said the Kaiser when the Reichstag in 1914 voted against war credits. Looking at the current stushie over road taxation, there seems something of a parallel: "I see no travellers, only motorists."

The Reichstag vote was a sort of suicide. Is autopatriotism any better? A rather conservative friend once visited the old East Germany. "A paradise for motorists," he said on his return. Ah, so: a paradise is where there are few, if any, of your own sort? As we head towards oil depletion or the globally-warmed state, a few fundamental questions seem in order.

Such as: "Is individual mobility a good?" If so, it's axiomatic that it ought to be universally available. But if at present 15% of the world's people have 85% of the world's cars, and we're heating up inexorably, will we physically survive 30%, let alone 50% car ownership? Not even Jeremy Clarkson would defend that one. So roll on peak oil?

I am a veteran non-motorist. I can drive, but haven't done so for more than 30 years. I found that the insecurity made me nervy and aggressive, quickly gave up, and lived. A lot of writing, reviewing, proof-reading and essay-marking is done on trains, perhaps adding a month or so to my working year. Virgin Trains told us back in October that rail travellers were 60% more productive on their journeys than motorists, but they would say that, wouldn't they?

Now it's obvious that some individual mobility is an unqualified benefit. Doctors, nurses, carers, deliverers and mechanics couldn't exist without it, and we couldn't exist without them. Two of my friends have 4x4s because they've got jobs which involve carting around and installing plumbing and electronic equipment. But there are motorists and motorists, and the time might have come for such "positive" motorists to discriminate against, say, the commuters whose daily journeys leave their vehicles for eight hours in a car park at work or near a station.

The latter's mother or father who biked short distances to work or was picked up and dropped by a factory bus lived a better, cheaper and more considerate life. Maybe they didn't get a thrill from sitting in the middle of a jam in their "own space", but that's a matter for a psychiatrist, not a planner.

As a Baden-W├╝rttemberg civil servant I belong with the drug-pusher class. We build Audis and Porsches and Mercs and flog them to the Brits. But we're more circumspect with our own mobility, travelling perhaps 20% fewer miles than them. Our towns have growing public transport use, cycling and walking, and co-op car schemes. In nearby Zurich people take nearly 420 bus, train and tram trips a year, three times more than the folk of Manchester. We have thriving town markets and locally owned shops: megamalls are not allowed. All this under a rather conservative provincial government, while New Labour, elected under a promise of reducing car congestion, peed its breeks at the first growl from the motor lobby in 2000, schmoozed the supermarkets, and let matters get far, far worse.

We are a bunch of chancers out here in what's left of the Black Forest. Like Bernard Shaw's Fabian arms dealer Undershaft in Major Barbara, we pay for our own transport welfare state by flogging toxic stuff to the world's Clarksons. Stern tells us that since 2000 German sales of gas-guzzlers have doubled to 28%, while those of low-powered cars have fallen by half to 9%.

This is woeful, but may not last. The American car industry is in deep doo-doo through underestimating the canniness of its clients and their reluctance to drive around in dodgems. Sobriety may set in and with it a determination to use our existing road space and fuel reserves sensibly and equitably. This future may be boring to the presenters of Top Gear, but at least it's a future.

 
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