The Hegemony of the Car

… may be over, but you’d be forgiven for thinking, like me, that there’s little evidence of that around here, as the average size of car seems to be increasing, proportionally to the increase in body mass and average speeds too.

Cars and related infrastructure don’t just dominate  landscapes, but have a stranglehold on the household economy in a surprisingly large way. So after rent and mortgage payments, transport costs are the single biggest expenditure, and you’ve probably guessed for most of us it the car that eats up most of that expenditure.  Buy why? It can’t be all about status and sex? Surely the implicit sexuality of car ownership has been displaced by the other things? Apart from anything else cars no longer look sexy like they did until the 50s. 1

Thanks to the Economist

Cars, and we hardly need the the Economist to remind us, are integral to modern life. They account for 70% of all journeys not made on foot in the OECD. There’s a billion of them worldwide and the Economist gloomily reports there’ll be 2 billion by 2020.

Thankfully, as most places in the developed world have reached capacity, and policies shift to support other modes, in cities at least, so presumably all the growth will be in the developing world. And in Dunbar. For way too long politicians and local authorities have prioritised car travel over other more sustainable travel options, as if there were no tomorrow. The rare exceptions and token gestures hardly amount to a trend.

But should we blame the transport department and politicians or finger strategic planners? Or is the planning system just broke? For most of the last half the last century, planning policy has focused around cars, and despite changes in policy, it still does by encouraging a style of surburban development that is wholly and hopelessly reliant upon it. The phenomenon isn’t just a problem of traditional suburbia with almost every community in the UK affected, sometimes doubling and trebling the size of towns and villages, everywhere within an hour or so of commute and also beyond. Until now the population of the centre of bigger cities has shrunk to make way for more lucrative development or High Street desolation. Only now has the depopulation of city centres reached a turning point, with new growth in city living, again, perhaps as the ennui of suburban living begins to weigh heavy.

So, for every suburban home you build you are probably creating 2, perhaps more commuters. The thinking here is that future residential developments should have sufficient parking provision to match the car ownership of residents, subject to road capacity considerations (200 homes might be the threshold for a transport assessment, so don’t get you knickers in a twist over 20 or even 50.) Parking standards for community facilities, however should be limited to operational requirements. The expectation is that users of community facilities will generally be expected to use public transport and car parks, or so conventional theory would suggest. But predict and provide theories of planning are not just unfashionable, they are hopelessly flawed. Building more roads generates more traffic. Who knows what the investment in public transport would generate economically, if politicians acted a bit more rationally, as they do in most metropolitan areas, where public transport is used as an economic development lever.

Just because round here only the old, the poor and the dispossessed use the bus isn’t reason not to re-imagine public transport. Even remote rural areas can have a vibrant service, so long as the model doesn’t ape the urban one, or masquerades as a rural service. If you create a service with labyrinthine routing and Byzantine timetabling- designed around administrative convenience and to pick up easy city fares at the other end, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the service is more about keeping competition at bay. In the UK it feels like buses are part of a Government program to get people to learn to drive, so they can get back to work and off benefits (it is a day trip to sign on). It may not be sexy driving that car any more, but it sure ain’t sexy getting the bus 2

So, the occasional initiative to promote Community Transport, and most recently East Lothian on the Move, ostensibly to develop a Local Transport Strategy is of course welcome, but the reality is that the more that is invested in options for the private car, the less goes into public transport. For now the car is so hard wired into decision making that we’re unlikely to get weaned off it any time soon.

To my mind a transport policy should probably do a number of things

  • create significant numbers of homes only where public transport options are viable or are created;
  • support a town centre and traditional shopping centres (frankly traditional shopping is over-rated) but without detriment to residents (ask yourself why High Streets are such desolate places);
  • discourage short journeys and convenience shopping (why allow all the out of town shopping?);
  • minimise negative impacts on streetscape (this would be a first);
  • improve road safety and reduce congestion and emissions (why are there not more cyclists on the road?);
  • always prioritise access / movement by non car users and the mobility impaired;
  • address residents’, carers and visitors needs e.g. to park and load reasonably close to their homes;
  • help parking / loading needs of businesses (provided they don’t require servicing by juggernaughts ); and
  • facilitate the operation and expansion of Car Clubs (which take up to 9 cars off the road – yippee!);
  • facilitate the operation of public transport, without detriment to residents or amenity (they are too often polluting, noisy and often inconsiderate to other road users);
  • ensure private benefits are not accruing to the detriment of the public benefits (e.g. homeowners who create their own parking, thereby removing public spaces, then continuing to use public spaces and still complaining about people parking)

Which is pretty much what they say they do in Edinburgh. Here residents pay for the pleasure of parking and they have a great permit system and if you’re a shopper you don’t expect to be able to drive right into the centre of town and park outside your favourite shop and you don’t expect it to be free. You’ll park, pay and walk, possibly several miles (a walk of up to 30 minutes is reckoned by planners creating zones). In fact if you drive right in it’ll probably take you a lot longer, you’ll cover a greater distance and it’ll also cost you a lot more.

What will it take to get people out of their cars, and slow down?

  1. The late 40s dream to own an apartment, a car, and plenty of women as encapsulated in “Death of a Salesman” Arthur Miller (1949) (Happy’s Dream)
  2. Someone, better informed than me, tried to disabuse me of that and claimed that public transport is great for forming relationships, and definitely better than most dating agencies for it costs a lot less.

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passionate about the new and the old, but only if it is any good