“Car owners are arseholes” is not transport policy

Public transport in the United Kingdom, unless you happen to live in London or a couple of other conurbations and only want to travel within those conurbations, is shit. Make no bones about it, it’s dire.

Bus deregulation and defunding has combined with significant barriers to competition (including directly anti-competitive behaviour on the part of certain companies) to give us infrequent, unreliable, dirty, inconvenient and expensive bus services – certainly expensive relative to the quality of service that’s delivered. I live in Norwich city centre, and point to point journeys are simply not an easy thing even though 90% of the buses are run by the same company, while the timetable is indicative at best – it’s basically impossible to actually plan around the bus turning up on time, because it frequently won’t.

Meanwhile, rail is even more expensive – intercity rail tickets are frequently more expensive per mile than international flights, despite the variety of taxes and surcharges included in air fares and the fact that it’s a plane that flies through the sky to go to another country – and almost as unreliable and inconvenient as buses. Advance tickets reduce the upfront cost, but also make train travel an exciting game of making sure all of your connections can line up at once to avoid being in the cool zone of “your rail ticket has no value”. Meanwhile, the passenger network has still not recovered from the Beeching cuts, and the process of building a new railway line (or new railway stations on existing lines) or reopening a closed one is rendered difficult by both Britain’s chronic NIMBYism and its obsession with the price of public spending over its value.

Then consider the holy grail of integration. Outside of the aforementioned conurbations, there isn’t any. And there frequently aren’t bus services to where you want to go anyway. So you are stuck with taxis, which are at the very least private and relatively comfortable but are also monstrously expensive compared even to bus travel.

Your other option, of course, is to walk – and in fairness, UK cities and towns are relatively walkable as things go. But if you’ve arrived at e.g. Thetford station because you want to go to the Center Parcs near there, as well you might, guess what; you’re not walking that. Not unless you enjoy diesel fumes and the near constant risk of being run over, for a delightful 1hr and 43 minutes according to Google Maps (which also outright refused to provide any kind of public transport route, because there isn’t one.) Taxi it is.

I say all this to illustrate the point of my first paragraph. Public transport in the UK is piss poor. The system (outside of London, for whose residents Transport for London gladly sprays around its buckets of cash) doesn’t have enough money in it or anyone really compelling private providers to do a better job, and the government as it stands is simply not interested in investing more money or improving regulation for a variety of reasons, mostly ideological. All of these problems are solvable, it’s just that the only entity capable of doing so doesn’t want to.

Pretty much everyone will agree on these points. Nobody says “I love taking the bus!” or “I feel like my rail ticket was excellent value!” or “it’s good that I had to spend £20 on a taxi to travel the last four miles of my journey” except the truly odd, or those who don’t have to do it very often and thus see it as a novelty. Try and rely on public transport as your only means of getting away from your local area and your world suddenly gets a lot smaller, a lot more inconvenient and a lot more expensive for the privilege.

I know this because I did that for 15 years of my life, ever since I moved out of home, and I can assure you that commuting to work frankly sucks balls when it’s 45 minutes each way on a bus that only comes once an hour and stops at 7, and grocery shopping sucks even more when your choices are either walking to M&S or getting a bus to somewhere more reasonable; to say nothing of actually trying to furnish the place you live (have you seen how much Ikea charge for delivery?). Meanwhile, visiting your family being a £50 return at best if booked weeks in advance is something that reliably makes you feel very sharply cut off from the rest of the world.

In a vicious feedback loop, then, owning a car has become steadily more attractive. The more attractive cars become, the more society restructures itself around them. The more society restructures itself around cars, the more attractive they become. There are strong reasons that people in such a circumstance might prefer or need to use a car – practical (“I can’t get to work unless I drive”, “the alternative is 2hrs on buses”, “I can’t walk to a food shop of any reasonable size but also don’t need enough to make up the minimum order on a delivery”), economic (“the bus fare to and from work is several times more than the petrol would be”, “a return train fare would be over £100 but the petrol would be £20”, “I can’t spend that much on taxis a month”) and social (“I simply can’t afford to go anywhere on public transport”, “if I don’t have a car I can’t visit Aunt Dora”).

The question I have then is this. Given all of the above, which again I believe everyone would agree on bar the aforementioned oddities, why the peculiar moralism about car ownership, and why the contention that if we simply make driving a car miserable enough an experience then it will go away?

We have all, to an extent, agreed that there are societal reasons why normal people might do things that are broadly defined as “anti-social” – that no man is an island. No leftist worth their salt would accept any proposition that the societal and economic circumstances that people have had inflicted upon them don’t in any way limit their options or inform their behaviour. We’re all also basically agreed that car ownership as opposed to the provision of public transport is a bad thing for society, including me, even as a car owner (honestly I’d really rather not – I tried to stick it out, I really did).

That said, a lot of the same people who are happy to handwave away e.g. crime as being a response solely or almost wholly to societal problems seem at the same time unwilling to accept that people might drive cars for any reason either than other ignorance, selfishness or simple spite. It’s a very peculiar form of moralising that if nothing else makes their own jobs a lot harder and limits their potential for popular support. And It’s a rather odd worldview where a guy who nicks someone’s phone is blameless and punishing him is unfair because of complex social factors that led him to the point of jacking peoples’ phones, whereas a person driving to a supermarket has personally drowned six polar bears in doing so and is a moral void as a result.

(There is another wider point here in that “none of us are free from sin” – unless you literally want to live in the woods and subsist on mushrooms foraged from the forest floor, your existence and participation in society and our economy as it exists is going to involve you either directly or indirectly creating carbon emissions, other forms of pollution and ultimately harm to the ecosystem through various means. This isn’t a point of judgment – don’t mistake me here for some Ted Kaczynski-style primitivist – but it’s a simple fact that even the people presently travelling to big cities to glue themselves to roads will have caused quite a bit of fossil fuel consumption both in the course of living their lives and in the actual fact of realising that protest. Even beyond merely depending on our current carbon-spewing capitalistic system, most of us actively enjoy a lot of the things that simply wouldn’t exist or be possible at present without it, and it’s fair to point out that either the energy to sustain those things must come from somewhere or they will go away. But I digress.)

Of course, there are limits to my generosity of spirit towards drivers. Buying an SUV to drive in an urban environment makes you a prick, full stop. There’s no reason to do that. I wouldn’t go and let their tyres down, but nor do I think it’s a reasonable or even comprehensible thing to do. It would also probably be better overall if we had some regulations, e.g. mandating the purchase of hybrids in the time before new combustion engine cars are banned entirely, or setting regulatory limits on engine size and emissions. This would probably upset the car enthusiast crowd, who will be upset that they can’t buy a giant Audi/BMW monster with a massively wasteful engine solely to drive up and down a motorway for half an hour each way, but it would also recognise that while it’s a desirable goal, at the moment getting rid of cars entirely is a long term project and not something you can do overnight.

Which is the crux of the matter. Sorting out the myriad issues with public transport – its bizarrely overinflated cost to the end user, its inconvenience and downright unsuitability for a lot of things people might conceivably need to use it for, the fact it’s universally run by private companies that don’t give a shit – is something that takes political capital, will, time and money. There isn’t any of that. So demanding that people currently reliant on cars stop using them (or fossil fuels in general) all of a sudden, or blaming them for not doing so, or seeking to enact “solutions” which in reality are just motivated by spite, is in the absence of workable alternatives tantamount to telling them to screw their own lives up. The people doing so are quite right that stopping global climate change is more important in the round than some bloke’s commute to work, but that bloke probably wouldn’t agree with you that he should quit his job solely so he doesn’t have to drive to it, removing his ultimately rather marginal contribution to national CO2 emissions, and so can make some campaigners think better of him.

This gets rather infuriating in particular hearing from cycling evangelists, who spend a great deal of their time complaining about the dismally shit state of the UK’s cycling infrastructure and about the relative lack of safety involved in being a cyclist on British roads – which, to be clear, are both perfectly valid concerns! – but then also telling everyone they should be riding bikes everywhere because cycling is great and that they’re an idiot if they’re driving a car instead, with some going the extra mile to also say that cycling is a better solution to our current woes than public transport. These don’t, to me, sound like compatible concepts. Pardon me if I’m not racing to do the thing that you’ve just told me involves riding a bike over a bunch of potholes and rubbish before I get sideswiped and killed by some dickhead in a Merc. Also pardon me if riding a bike in the pissing rain doesn’t appeal over sitting on a heated bus, or if things like “our cities and towns are very small and cramped and we would literally have to demolish lots of little things like peoples’ houses if we’re going to retrofit them with both massive cycle lanes and also the roads for motor vehicles (which we will still need, even if you ride a bike)” sound like petty objections to building cycling superhighways everywhere.

(For what it’s worth, please do not @ me on this or any other point in this article. You’re welcome to think I’m a dick, I neither need to hear that you do or care if you do.)

The sad truth, quite a dispiriting one really, is that the UK has refactored its entire society over the past several decades to be restructured around the use of private cars for personal transport, with significant incentives to do so and significant disincentives to rely on public transport. Fixing that simply will not happen probably even within a decade, even with vast amounts of money and government will that are presently not forthcoming, and in the meantime that car-dominated society will still factually exist with all of its significant incentives to drive a car. That this is the case is not the fault of individual car drivers, any more than it’s the fault of any other random individual compelled to interact with and live within a system they may not necessarily agree with that that system exists.

For sure, my ideal solutions (aside from the mandate on hybrid vehicles as above) would involve a heavy reinvestment in public transport infrastructure, including substantial increases to the central government funding of loss-making services to serve smaller populations that would not be otherwise commercially viable – in particular, late night services and services to further-flung destinations whose traffic may be small but that act as important feeders into other forms of transport. This would also need to be coupled with an incredible amount of either fare subsidy and/or direct government control to again run the services either at cost or at a deliberate loss. Both in concert would reduce two of the pull factors towards private car ownership (uncompetitive pricing of public transport and its relative inconvenience). We also should retrofit proper separated cycle lanes into existing streets wherever this can be accommodated alongside existing traffic; although this is probably never going to be possible at the level the aforementioned evangelists would like, it would help make cycling a more palatable option relative to driving.

Naturally none of this is going to happen under the current government, and Keir Starmer’s Labour absolutely won’t do it, meaning that the societal pull factors towards private cars still factually exist and are going to for the foreseeable future, unless something magical happens and either or both of those entities get a clue. It would probably help, therefore, if people who want to get rid of cars – something which, again, I am more than happy to endorse as a long-term, if far-fetched, goal even as someone who owns a car – to blame that system and those entities that are preventing meaningful solutions, rather than moralising about how individual drivers are evil.

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