Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Economist 'comes out' against the 'War on the Motorist'

With thanks to The Economist for re-publishing this chart
At last, some sensible comment on this government's obsession with the so-called 'war on the motorist' espoused in particular by the secretary of statement for transport, Philip Hammond and by Eric Pickles, our cuddly secretary of state for communities and local government.

Let's hear this from The Economist:

The Tories have long cherished their reputation as the party of the motorist, and this will doubtless go down well with the party's base. Indeed the promise to end the 'war' was a recurring feature of their election campaign. It plays well with the narrative that motorists are treated as cash-cows by uncaring bureaucrats, a political trope that, after years of reptition, almost everyone now believes.

True enough, I say. In fact, if you look at yesterday's press release about the 'woes' of parking a car (a government press release genuinely suggests drivers experience parking 'woes'), even the non-cynical among you might start thinking this 'war on the motorist' verbage is sliding rapidly away from reality and into melodrama.

But the mainstream press is lapping it up.

Until now, it has been the haunt of a handful of bloggers to start pointing out this whole concept seems a bit fishy. At War on the Motorist blog re-writes this phoney war rather nicely as 'the war between motorists' and recently George Monbiot joined in with this article here (and George, although your article is superb, the fact that it's a blog article means you really ought to have mentioned the many bloggers who have been writing this same argument for months now before you latched on to it). Anyhow, back to the point which is that there are so many cars, so many traffic jams, so few places to park, such spiralling petrol costs, that something has to give. We can't keep building ourselves out of the problem with more roads. As War on the Motorist points out again and again, this war is actually between motorists competing for road space and, frankly, for a bit of sanity.

My mother is an ardent 'motorist'. She lives in town that was recently noted as having the worst public transport on a per capita basis of any similar-sized town in the UK. And she genuinely doesn't see any other option than to drive. But even she (a die-hard fan of Philip Hammond) notes that she'd like to get on a tram. Or a bike. Or just forget the stress of the car. If only the government would give her the chance.

But the government is obsessed with its war on the motorist blathering. And it thinks that turning people from 'drivers' into 'green drivers' as it repeated yesterday is going to change things. I first bemoaned this sort of attitude some months ago here if you're interested in reading further.

It's a relief that The Economist is picking up where the rest of the press is simply following the government line on this issue.

These are the salient points from The Economist as I read it:
  • Every kind of public transport is now more expensive than it was two decades ago
  • The total cost of motoring - shown by the red line - is now only around 85% of its 1997 level
  • To slightly misquote another, more famous, Tory politician, you could make a pretty strong case that the motorist has never had it so good.

 I'm not sure what to add, really. But thank you, The Economist, for sticking your neck out and speaking as you find rather than simply cutting and pasting government press releases.
This is why we still need to pay for journalism, I suppose. Because if we don't, there won't be an Economist to actually look at the reality rather than the myth.



  1. The downward slope of that red line is merely a continuation of a downward slope which has been going on ever since the era of mass car ownership, ie since the sixties - or was it the fifties? The price of petrol in real terms has been going down continuously over that period as well, oil shock or no oil shock.

    My view is that some parts of the press haven't the guts to stand up to the motor manufacturers' lobby because so much of their advertising revenue is derived from the motor trade, oil companies etc who must put huge pressure on editors to toe their party line.

    Battery cars are an evolutionary dead end. They will never ever deliver the speed and range, or price competitiveness, of the petrol/diesel car. The energy density of a battery is a tiny percentage of hydrocarbon fuel. The real future for the motor car beyond hyrdocarbons must surely be something like hydrogen fuel cells but the industry doesn't want to stump up the investment, and it doesn't suit Big Oil anyway.

    Whatever, battery cars are a convenient diversion from the real solutions which threaten the hegemony of the car - hardly anyone is going to buy a Nissan Leaf at £23k (after £5k subsidy) when an equivalent saloon costs no more than £15k, but in any case they use the same road space as petrol cars and they don't take away road or parking space from petrol cars, as a sensible pro-cycling strategy would have to do. They permit Mr Pickwick to tick that particular box on the "Conservative Environmental Manifesto Policy" checklist.

  2. Excellent article, reminds my why I have a subscription to the Economist.

    There isn't enough road space or parking for all the cars, but too many drivers don't see that they are part of the problem.

  3. The war on motorists that never was, is 'ended' and much trumpeted by the media.

    However, the undeclared war waged by motorists for decades against pedestrians and those who ride bicycles continues unabated, aided and abetted by the media and craven Government.

    Just watch the body-count continue to rise and rise. Except of course, the media will ignore it, because it isn't news.

    Don't be fooled by the statistics, the overall decline in road casualties hides the fact that the ratio of the casualties among vulnerable road users is rising.

  4. You may have seen this already, but its a good article:

    "So, yes, celebrate VD Day (Victory for Drivers) with David Cameron if you wish. But be sure to invite some of the victims to your victory parade in Trafalgar Square. Make sure there’s a line of weeping mums whose children have been killed. Make sure there’s a long row of people with missing legs, and arms, and eyes. Give me some notice and I’ll even bring my grandmother. But don’t worry: thanks to a speeding driver, she won’t even know she’s there."