Why The Car is Best

Thursday, 8 March 2007

[Picture of off road car]THE car is not perfect, but it is still the best. It really is — and to deny this simple truth can only lead to unhappiness. Facts are facts, and facts have to be faced. What I shall attempt to do here is explain for the record why the car is best (as completely as I possibly can).

But first, there is no avoiding at least a brief look at the background context; it will greatly assist understanding all the important points later. It really makes all the difference to understanding the UK situation, but this is not a history post, so allowances for high-speed overviewing must be made. Anyway, here goes:

Government Made Cars Our Future

In the Industrial Revolution, when people moved into cities and towns from the rural countryside, there was a sudden and great expansion, and many new problems to be dealt with. What is of interest for our purposes is the fact that houses were built (albeit in a rush) near factories, mines and other places of work. This naturally led to shops and markets, and a demand for public utilities — like churches, parks, town halls, public toilets and so forth.

This is all very organic and natural; people mainly travelled about by foot, or used the horse, but change and progress meant that, when the working man and woman got the vote and prosperity kicked in, the public began to have some disposable income and some free time.

  • This led to holiday seaside towns and public transport — especially trains, but also ferries, buses and trams.

[Picture of Le Corbusier’s futurama]

The post World War rebuilding was a new age altogether. Flying in aeroplanes was becoming a possibility, for one thing.

For another was the freedom of motor vehicles — motor bikes, mopeds, scooters, and cars represented wealth, status and the freedom of the open road.

[Picture of Le Corbusier’s Plans for Paris]

Because this rebuilding was immense, it required managing and planning, and so local councils created town planning departments. Modern architecture was hailed as the way forward, and great social housing projects and even entire new towns (such as Milton Keynes, East Kilbride and Cumbernauld) were built “out-of-town” in the green suburban belt.

People had to commute to and from work, and this was facilitated by the invention of motorways, rather than expanding any public transport network.

[Picture of Futurama]Soon other “out of town” areas were invented — Industrial Estates were first, then Enterprise Zones and Retail Parks — including builder’s merchants to cope with the rise in home-ownership and DIY.

Finally came “out-of-town” shopping centres of covered malls with cinemas, restaurants, and supermarkets.

The Present Day:

Today people cannot easily commute to and from work by public transport. Not merely because towns were planned for car use, but later too — for when mines and factories closed down, towns and even “out-of-town” housing remained, and people have to travel further afield to find work.

  • The car is the best way to get about, and with time this becomes increasingly the case. Simple as that.

The Bike

[Picture of a bike]We copied the US American model which favoured the highway and the automobile. But in countries such as Sweden and Holland, the bicycle is commonplace — but then they have not suffered radical town planning that decants people to dormitory suburbs. In Sweden and Holland, in my experience, people still live near their local shops and places of work, and so a bicycle is a valid option. It helps that no-one seems to bother with safety helmets and that Holland is flat!

The Motor Scooter

[Picture of European road]France, Spain — and especially Italy have been closely associated with the motor scooter for nipping about town. Ideal for hilly hairpin bends in a hot climate, for cobbled squares and narrow roads in tiny hilltop towns, the motor scooter offered cheap, stylish personal transport that perfectly suited its market.

However, notice that this was without the present-day helmet and safety issues, and note too that the traditional old hilltop towns and villages (i.e. organic, evolved communities) remained intact — meaning that people still worked and shopped locally. Indeed it is normal in mainland Europe to eat and drink local cheese, wines and so forth — geography is everything to them.

[Picture of an Italian Ape]When mainland Europeans do need to travel distances, they make use of a very good and efficient, modern and maintained public transport network of high speed trains (TGV), cable-cars, subways, ferries, trams and more. When out-of-town retail shopping is required — or when DIY building supplies are needed, small cars are favoured — or strange vehicles that seem to be a cross between a van and a motorcycle (ape — pronounced ah-peh)!

Even so, with the rise in helmet laws, and increased availability of car air-conditioning, the motor-scooter is finally dying out.

Car Carrying

[Picture of an MPV]Car is a word that describes a wide range of vehicles, from the small mini to the 4×4. The differences between an Estate, an MPV, or even a camper van are not important for the argument other than to highlight (a) how better suited is a personally-adapted motor vehicle over public transport and (b) the fact that the British need a car for carrying things — the big shop from the out-of-town Tesco or ASDA — DIY flat-packs from IKEA, as well as children (requiring car seats and booster seats as well as prams, strollers, toys and the rest) for the school run and hobbies. Then there’s the golf clubs and the stuff for the gym. And you can always help someone moving house by taking some stuff in your car.

Cars can take a top box and pull a trailer or a caravan.

You can’t carry much on a bike, scooter, bus or train! In fact the more luggage you have on public transport, the more anti-social you are believed to be! Your stuff may be costing someone a seat!

[Picture of a train platform]

Personal Space

Cars offer other freedoms — such as the freedom of a tangible personal space,or a safety “bubble”. In this personal space a driver is free to eat, sleep, read the paper, listen to music and talk on the phone. A lone car driver is free to sing, break wind, smoke, talk aloud (and even swear) to him or her self — things that no other form of transport can offer — or even hope to come close.

Cars are incomparable really, yet often the media tries to suggest that cars can be replaced by public transport, and that the use of cars — especially by one person is a choice and a purely selfish one at that. This completely discounts the different requirements of real people, and the different degrees of required personal space in particular, for comfort, but also for convenience and necessity; cars make much more sense for the pregnant, the disabled or anyone with fears and phobias, and even worries about their looks, weight or the fact that they’ve still got their slippers on!

[Picture of car boot picnic]Old folks go for a run in the car. Kids have sex in cars. People have quarrels in cars. Life and death happens in cars. In the USA, people go to Drive-in movies, elsewhere there are drive-through restaurants; people eat and drink in cars. People have picnics from cars, day trips in cars and car-boot sales.

[Putting on Lipstick]For a woman alone, the car offers a lockable security zone. She is safe inside, equal with all other motorists, and in charge of her destiny. She is away from the elements — the rain and wind that attack hairdos and make-up. Warm, cosy and coatless.

The personal space can easily extend to children — for the school run. In this day and age, parents cannot be too careful — and schools are subject to all sorts of rules about catchment areas, so it is increasingly unlikely to be able to have a school near enough to walk to safety.

However, the idea of formal car-sharing is not appealing to most motorists. It compromises independence — their freedom to pop to the shops on the way home, to change route, to go home early, to have a day off, — all are lost when regularly giving someone a lift — even family!

Personalisation

[Picture of Limo]People personalise their car — from cushions, seat covers, stickers, and air-fresheners, to serious hi-fi installations, bodywork and engine pimping! A car can be a status symbol — it can make a statement, and it always displays the choices made. Some cars are kept clean and well maintained, other cars are full of litter.

[Picture of ride pimped]For some, a car is a full-blown hobby, where driving from “A to B” is far from the point; they are in a club, they meet up and socialise, they restore and do things to their cars. Sure, this is also true of motor-scooters and motor bikes, but the point is about pride and ownership — something absent from those who go train-spotting, bus-spotting and plane-spotting.

The Portable Cupboard

[Picture of boot]A car can be an extension of the home, a permanent, moveable place to store a coat, an umbrella, lunch, or even a CD collection. I know people who use their car boot to permanently store golf clubs, a pram, a travel cot, fishing gear, a gym bag, swimming kit, or tools and overalls for work.

Some people use their car as a sort-of temporary kennel for their dogs, or as a base-camp for all sorts of outdoor activities — hillwalking, caravanning, and touring B&Bs.

Convenience

[Picture of a bus]The car can offer someone a lift, and it can be activated suddenly and instantly in an emergency — no waiting for the next train or bus. It is ready and waiting for you when YOU need it, day and night. That means it offers another type of freedom — the freedom of impulse, the freedom from lowest common denominator timetables and other people’s schedules.

[Picture of crowded carriage]People argue about congestion, without thinking it through: there’s congestion on the underground, standing room only on buses, and a serious crush on the train. For many people, the safety and security of a car — even one stuck in traffic — is infinitely preferable to rush hour delays, cancellations, inefficiencies and strikes of public transport. A car keeps you away from strange people, terrorists with bombs, annoying children, annoying personal stereos, invasions of personal space, and fear of pickpockets, sexual assault, violence, and dirt.

There’s no hassle with helmets or high-visibility clothing. No worries about storage, or weather.

Drinking & Smoking

At one time people walked home from the pub. Then they drove home from the pub. However as more and more businesses are located in “out-of-town” Business Parks, there is little choice but to drive to and from the office. Drinking has therefore become separated from the daily routine in the UK — the result of which is binge drinking; people go out on public transport into areas (city centres) to binge drink. Cars are not allowed in most city centres anyway.

  • It is yet another drawback to public transport that it is used by groups of drunk people (although they can’t smoke now).

In Scotland and Ireland smoking is banned in public places, so people go out to their cars in the office carpark for a smoke.

Technology

Cars have always fought hard for our attention. Every season the car designers sell the latest developments, there are always new features, extras, models, options, and gadgets — anti-lock brakes, four-wheel-drive, heated rear windscreen, alarms, central locking, air-conditioning, sun roofs, cruise control — and now satellite navigation systems so that we cannot get lost, we can avoid speed cameras and congestion.

The nearest from of transport in terms of working hard for the consumer would be the airlines! Airlines offer cheap flights, more destinations, air miles, leg room, and creature comforts.

I cannot think of any innovations or new features of motor scooter, bicycle, bus or train. UK Public transport cannot even get the basics fixed — reliability, cleanliness, security, simplicity, efficiency, thoughtfulness.

What about fossil fuels and emissions — the whole global warming/ environment thing? Well, what can we do? We would have to try to turn back the clock, start to live near where we work and shop, throw away the US American model and rebuild again from the ground up — and I just do not see that as realistic.

More likely is that cars will have improved designs to reduce emissions. There are already gas and electric cars and hybrids. Who knows about buses and trains doing the same!

Stealth Tax & Big Brother

[Picture of car clamped][Picture of Traffic warden giving parking ticket]The Government has no clear policy on traffic and transport — but this is deliberate because the Treasury is using the muddled situation to employ its stealth taxing schemes — the road tax, the fines and penalties from illegal parking and speeding, and now the congestion charging.

It clearly would like any new schemes to have some form of revenue generating component.

Of course, they are refusing to listen to the public: A recent on-line petition about hi-tech road charging and tracking showed that the people of this country want their cars (see BBC Newsnight story) , yet — despite their own website’s petition breaking records — the government has said they know better and that people “just need to be convinced”, and are therefore pressing ahead with their plans anyway.

[Picture of Police car]This is not a new approach — far from it; past governments thought to construct and rebuild the post-colonial, post-war, post-empire Britain on roads and cars. They didn’t listen back then either — they “knew what was best of us” and went ahead to create the problems of the modern world in which we presently live — a world of car dependency. We have adjusted to it, and now we have half a century of dependence to it. A knot such as that cannot quickly be undone — and shortcuts cannot be made; it has to unravel the reverse of the way it was tied. Or we can build on it.

  • Take a road that once was congested. Double Yellow lines stop parking and keep the road unobstructed for flowing traffic. Some years later, to keep speeds down, the road gets narrowed, double yellow lines are added along with a bus lane, cycle lane, islands and speed bumps — and the road is now as obstructed as it was when cars were allowed to park! Notice, however, that the modern version can generate revenue.

[Picture of Orwellian eye][Picture of speed camera]In addition to generating revenue, the Government has used anti-terrorism as an excuse to become more like Orwell’s Big Brother. The British are the most Spied-on in the world, and because of the surveillance and revenue-generating approach, people are being forced into becoming criminals by putting them on the brink of a driving ban. In a country created for the car, a ban would make life very difficult indeed, and could cost people their livelihoods and lives.

Road Pricing, car tracking and more restrictions and laws are ways to penalise and control us.

Government Approach Needs To Change

[Picture of Hans Monderman scheme in Holland]First we need a government that is about freedoms, society, family, community, and increasing happiness. A government that encourages us to realise our potential, rather than seek to restrict our movements and behaviours.

In that approach, any cohesive Traffic and Transport strategy would start with the obvious fact that the car is the best mode, the people’s favourite and that we have spent too many years constructing our society around roads to start anew.

  • Once we state clearly that we want a future with cars, then we can all start to work on appropriate solutions — cleaner cars, better roads and long-term strategies, more parking, and so forth — and stop throwing money away on charging schemes, trains and the rest!

What about congestion?

[Picture of congestion]Things are getting worse; there is not enough affordable housing– especially for first-time buyers and those in need of rented accommodation through the local authority — so there is a lot of new “out-of-town” house building, which will in turn increase car traffic.

Perhaps we could make moves to reverse the trend — get offices, supermarkets and cinemas back into the city centres and town centres again, and start populating towns and cities again.

I have read many articles and seen a great many TV programmes about congestion that miss all the important points and push forward some idiotic notions. A popular one is the illustration of a town that was so congested that they built a bypass. Soon the bypass became congested so they build a new bypass — and their conclusion (oddly) is that roads are not a solution!

Obviously roads are a solution! It is patently clear that if the bypass gets congested, not having it would be a worse situation!

This brings on the bizarre argument that roads always fill up, that somehow roads make cars. This defies logic and reason; it is nonsense. The fact is that if you build a road that gets congested, then you need to build another road and another and another until the congestion is gone. You have the correct size of road when the congestion is gone. By taking small step after small step, gingerly building the odd new road, the effect is not to reduce congestion but to affect the length of time the congestion is heaviest. This is simple fluid flow principles in practice.

  • Consider the old adage:
    If you say your glass is half empty, then you are a pessimist.
    If you say that your glass is half-full, then you are an optimist.
    If you say that the glass is the wrong size, then you are an engineer.

[Picture of credit card internet shopping]In the meantime, we could watch and see if the Internet has some impact over time — people working from home, or working flexible hours — or ordering shopping and deliveries online. Fewer trips to the out of town supermarket means less congestion.

Working hours and school hours could quite easily be changed. In warm countries, people are up earlier in the morning and later at night, with the midday a time for siesta. In France, children go to school on Saturday morning and have Thursday off, I believe. By staggering school hours, terms and so forth, we could remove the school run from the rush hour.

Flexible working hours, shifts and alternative days off are other ways to calm traffic. Many schools do not have school buses — buses would certainly reduce traffic, and in some cases factories and offices could offer a private bus service on the same basis as school buses.

[Picture of roadworks sign]Road repairs that are done (causing congestion and miles of traffic cones), are done badly (see news story about this)– meaning that they need to be done again — and causing more congestion). Roadworks have to be managed better.

[Picture of Traffic Policeman]Keeping traffic flowing is the key — a skilled traffic policeman (as is well known in Europe) is far better than automated traffic lights.

The UK could learn a lot from other countries, such as the US American idea of being able to turn nearside at a red traffic light, or of the European idea of turning off all traffic lights at 23:00 every evening (the amber light flashes all night). In Paris, there are active signs on roads (not just motorways) that inform of roadworks or congestion ahead.

[Picture of toll booth]French toll roads are wonderful and save a lot of money, emissions and tempers. These roads even have their own radio stations! They say that Brits are dead against toll roads — but that is not wholly true; a very good, clear road with great service stations, picnic stops, an in-built breakdown and security service, no police and no speed limit (just like in France) would be welcomed and embraced by Brits if they knew the value they would be getting for their money.

If the pedestrianised centres, one-way systems, and ring-roads were removed, traffic feeding onto motorways would be more free (see “How to stop traffic jams and save lives“), and people would be happier. So-called “Traffic Calming” is the cause of congestion. Speed Humps cause problems for the disabled, the elderly and the pregnant.

Active solutions — if required — may then be considered: opening up one-ways to allow bypasses, overriding traffic signals, opening up hard shoulders to alleviate traffic flow at peak times.

Freedom of Speech

It is OK to like roads and cars.

It is OK to dislike public transport.

Only once we realise it is OK to come out and say so, progress might be made!

We Brits have for too long now been intertwined with our cars. It is a national trait to drive, we are no longer a nation people who like to travel by bus or train. Admit this and stop trying to go against the grain.

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7 Responses to “Why The Car is Best”

  1. Rory Says:

    I certainly agree that the private car is truly wonderful. However, they are not always practical. If everyone who commutes to, and around, London each day were to use a car instead, then the congestion would be an absolute nightmare.

    Just as people shouldn’t be automatically anti-car, I would also argue that people shouldn’t be automatically public transport.

    A good public transport system benefits everyone – and particularly those who cannot afford or are unable to use a private car.

    So, while I agree that the car is “king”, man cannot live (at least not with the current population density in the south-east!!) by car alone.

  2. Fred Says:

    London is a special case in the UK. Most of Europe is rural countryside, and that goes for the UK too. Wales and Scotland have small populations concentrated in a handful of cities. The car is needed to travel BETWEEN and TO cities, and I would agree that the car is “king” when you consider out of town shopping centres. That trouble is (as ever) that the problem is not seen in the round, but only by government in cities like London. What is great about this article is that it has a truthfulness and clarity about trying to understand the modern world in car terms. I found it refreshing and informative, particularly the links and news stories. Rory may be right in what he says about London, but hopefully this article would have enlightened him to the bigger picture!

  3. Arun Khagram Says:

    Your article failed to adress issues such as pollution, noise, collisions, stress, accessibility, and comunity.

    What you call a “safety bubble” I call isolation.

    Haven’t you been to Amsterdam? Isn’t it beautiful?

  4. Sam Says:

    This is very biased and mostly wrong.

  5. dave Says:

    http://www.wimp.com/trafficlights/ They turned off the traffic lights in a town near Bristol and removed jams!

  6. Kim Says:

    If the car is so great, why does it need so much subsidy? The simple truth is motor transport is heavily subsidised, if drivers where made to pay the full costs there would be very few on the roads. It is about time that motorist paid their fair share and stopped sponging off the rest of us.


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