The Daily Telegraph
Driving has rarely been so popular – or so frustrating
There should be a phrase for when a government simultaneously carries out two policies which work in opposing directions. Current transport policy is based on the presumption that Covid-19 has hastened the end of the age of the private car. Our cities have been carpeted with low-traffic neighbourhoods. The ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars has been brought forward to 2030, at which point many thousands of motorists will be priced off the road or forced to buy vehicles which are unsuited to long journeys. Work on HS2 continues apace, and other schemes to expand rail services have been proposed.
Yet all the while, Covid policy ensures that demand for private cars and other road transport has never been higher. The public has been terrified off trains and buses, told that maskwearing and socialdistancing will have to remain for the long-term – forever, even, in the opinion of government adviser Susan Michie.
Shops, forced to close through repeated lockdowns, have been encouraged to go online – with the resulting increase in van traffic running into the barriers created by low-traffic neighbourhoods.
While many people are still working from home, obviating the need for a daily commute to the office, city-based employers are dispersing to the suburbs and to the countryside, where their lifestyles involve more car journeys.
In short, reports of the death of the car have been greatly exaggerated. On some days, in fact, the number of car journeys is now higher than at the beginning of March 2020.
On 6 June, for example, private car journeys across the UK were eight per cent higher than pre-pandemic levels. On the same day, national rail journeys were down to 46 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
Meanwhile, data from Transport for London shows the number of journeys walked, cycled or made by pubic transport has fallen from 63 per cent to 57 per cent as a consequence of the pandemic, meaning Sadiq Khan has fallen even further behind his arbitrary and faintly ludicrous target of making 80 per cent of all London journeys “active or sustainable” by 2041.
The Mayor and the Government can bleat on all they like about the importance of healthy streets and green transport schemes, but look at how people are actually responding to the pandemic and it seems as if we are back in Mrs Thatcher’s car-owning democracy of the 1980s. People are wanting to drive more, and are buying more cars, pushing up the cost of secondhand vehicles in the process.
Yet it is a transition for which the Government is totally unprepared. True, no UK government has ever had a coherent approach to the roads.
Drive up the A1 and you see the result of endless reversals of policy. One moment you are on a four-lane motorway; a few miles later you are on a narrow, twisting two-lane dual carriageway with tractors trying to get across it.
But no previous government has driven quite as erratically as this one. In tempting us out of our cars while doing everything to make sure that we are forced to rely on road transport as never before, it has steered down the wrong slip road and is now heading squarely into oncoming traffic.