I’d been having thoughts about the “right” to own a car and a place to park it. Two things I’d observed:-
- A friend who loves to do up classic cars– ahh if the only car owners were those who really did love automobiles.
- Loki the Scottish rapper, winner of the Orwell prize for his book, Poverty Safari. He tweets sense normally and engages civilly with Unionists. This has made the madder Nats accuse of him of being a sell out with subsequent abuse, which he meets robustly. However, when he started to complain about the lack of parking in his area, he stopped tweeting on the subject– he didn’t know he’d get such a furious response from the sustainable transport gang. He, who had seen his childhood poverty in a larger social context, could not see his car in the same way.
I was slowly formulating, “Cars as luxuries for hobbyists or the rich would be like Lear jets or private helicopters. You may object about how they are obtained by unequal wealth but the damage they do is limited. It was when cars became necessities for mass transport that they turned into the barbarian hordes of city destroyers that they have become.” Health, education, sewerage systems, electricity, postal delivery, even broadband, they should be distributed and available and affordable, when they are not free, to all. Cars, and the infrastructure they require – no.
Yesterday I posted on Facebook a link to an article about the conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians in shared space. I got this comment:-
SC:- - More cyclists wanting every stretch of tar to themselves.
Cyclists asking for the kind of safe, connected space that motorists and pedestrians take pretty much for granted get furious reactions. It is the Bounderby fury that workers petitioning for a half day off on Saturday and a work day of 12 instead of 14 hours are sybarites, calling insolently for a life of leisure. It is the anger of the unthinkingly privileged being challenged.
The comment thread then followed the path familiar to cycling activists, with the mythical road tax being evoked. SC’s last comment is:-
“Yes local taxes pay towards the roads but the car drivers tops it up massively with the extra tax imposed on them compared to a cyclist. And not every car in a city only transports one person. It's a human right to have a choice to drive cycle walk or run and should be bullied out of driving because of higher and higher taxes and insurance only drivers pay . As for space a car uses its the same as a cyclist because the highway code is give a cyclist the space of a car.”
He has been asked to consider the space taken by 10 cycles parking vs 10 cars, 10 cycles pulled up at the lights vs 10 cars and has not yet responded. The “human right to have a choice to drive” phrase is a marvel, equating car ownership with the right not to be tortured or subject to arbitrary arrest. It is a wonderful demonstration of a privilege being perceived as a right – which is why debates between drivers vs sustainable transport types are so bitter and angry. Drivers aren’t just put out that they may not have it all their way in the future – they view themselves as victims of a gross injustice, like women denied the franchise.
This essay by Andre Gorz eloquently said it all back in 1973.
The worst thing about cars is that they are like castles or villas by the sea: luxury goods invented for the exclusive pleasure of a very rich minority, and which in conception and nature were never intended for the people. Unlike the vacuum cleaner, the radio, or the bicycle, which retain their use value when everyone has one, the car, like a villa by the sea, is only desirable and useful insofar as the masses don’t have one.…
This is pretty much common knowledge in the case of the seaside villas. No politico has yet dared to claim that to democratize the right to vacation would mean a villa with private beach for every family. Everyone understands that if each of 13 or 14 million families were to use only 10 meters of the coast, it would take 140,000km of beach in order for all of them to have their share! To give everyone his or her share would be to cut up the beaches in such little strips—or to squeeze the villas so tightly together—that their use value would be nil and their advantage over a hotel complex would disappear. In short, democratization of access to the beaches point to only one solution—the collectivist one...
Now, why is it that what is perfectly obvious in the case of the beaches is not generally acknowledged to be the case for transportation? Like the beach house, doesn’t a car occupy scarce space? Doesn’t it deprive the others who use the roads (pedestrians, cyclists, streetcar and bus drivers)? Doesn’t it lose its use value when everyone uses his or her own? And yet there are plenty of politicians who insist that every family has the right to at least one car and that it’s up to the “government” to make it possible for everyone to park conveniently, drive easily in the city, and go on holiday at the same time as everyone else, going 70 mph on the roads to vacation spots.
Andre Gorz goes on to make a variety of points that are now commonplaces among sustainable transport campaigners:-
- car ownership has turned cities into sprawls with increasing distances between shopping, work and schools, which reinforces the reliance on the car;
- mass ownership of cars jams up cities so that the car goes no faster than the bicycle at rush hours (observable any commuting day);
- that cities made hellish by cars have to be escaped from by cars;
- highways have been developed at the expense of public transport;
- oil magnates have seized much power in producing car dependency;
- there is a paradox in that while cars give a sense of independence their owners are far more dependent on third parties like garages and mechanics than with earlier means of transport, and the workings of car are a mystery to most. (That last point I think specious – you were dependent on wheelwrights and blacksmiths in horse-owning days, and in my youth every young bloke tinkered with an engine.)
His solution is the green Utopian one of local neighbourhoods growing their own food that are so fully integrated and agreeable that no-one wants to leave them –a radical and unlikely reshaping of our cities, which have always had districts – whether tanning and copper beating in other times, or these days, finance and the “old town” i.e. the tourist area. Variety and specialisation within a city are a city’s strength. As so often, someone who can forcefully express a problem, may sound weak when expressing a solution.
But that’s a cavil – Gorz wrote this in 1973 when city centres were still getting knocked down for ring roads. His point is that you cannot talk about transport in isolation – that when considering transport you have to consider what kind of city people should inhabit, and how they should relate to each other.
And better a green Utopia than the Divine Right of the status quo.
DISTINGUISH carefully between the two,
This thing is yours, the other thing is mine.
You have a shirt, a brimless hat, a shoe
And half a coat. I am the Lord benign
Of fifty hundred acres of fat land
To which I have a right. You understand?
I have a right because I have, because,
Because I have—because I have a right.
Now be quite calm and good, obey the laws,
Remember your low station, do not fight
Against the goad, because, you know, it pricks
Whenever the uncleanly demos kicks.
I do not envy you your hat, or shoe.
Why should you envy me my small estate?
It’s fearfully illogical in you
To fight with economic force and fate.
Moreover, I have got the upper hand,
And mean to keep it. Do you understand?
The Justice of the Peace
Hilaire Belloc: in “Sonnets and Verse.”