Tag Archives: the guardian

State intervention

In reviewing the Radio 4 documentary Bristol: Cycling City (I didn’t hear it and was too slow on the iPlayer), the Guardian‘s radio critic Elisabeth Mahoney once again revealed the bizarrely muddled thinking of a nation so thoroughly addicted to its car culture.  The Cycling City project, in which a mere £22 million was given to the city to invest in cycling infrastructure and projects, was, she said, a “large state intervention in lifestyle issues”.

The implication is that the billions we spend designing our roads and streets for motor vehicles does not amount to a large state intervention in lifestyle.  Or perhaps Mahoney thinks that the inner-Bristol ring road has always been there, that the M32 arterial motorway is a natural geological landform laid down in the last ice age, and that the traffic signals that allow the narrow old city streets to support such a volume of cars just shoot from the pavement without the council even having to put down the right kind of fertiliser.

The roads projects of the second half of the twentieth century add up to the biggest state intervention in lifestyle choices there has ever been.  Building for the motor car gave some people new freedom and luxury,  to others it gave divided neighbourhoods and cities ruined by blight.  People were pushed out of their villages by richer car-commuters from the city, elderly people were isolated by the loss of their bus service, and people who were quite happy not driving — who couldn’t afford to run a car — were forced into supporting one as the car culture around them led directly to the closure of their local shops and services and sources of employment.  Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.

Amongst those whose lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies are people who would like to be able to walk and cycle.  Currently the proportion of journeys made by bicycle in much of the UK is less than one percent, and even in Bristol is well within single figures.  Again, perhaps Mahoney simply thought that this is the natural state for cycling — that the rates above 25% regularly achieved by some European cities are unnatural, achieved only by the force of the state.  Actually, if you ask a sample of people on the streets of Bristol, or any other British city, about their transport choices then the chances are they will tell you that they would like to be able to walk and cycle for their daily local journeys, but their streets and neighbourhoods simply aren’t designed to allow it.  You have to cross a dual carriageway that has no crossing; you have to learn to love four-lane roundabouts; you have to cycle down a suburban ‘A’ road that has lines of cars each side parked half on the pavement and half covering the cycle lane, while double-decker buses and articulated trucks overtake six inches from your handlebars, and queues of cars grow behind you, honking, just incase you haven’t yet got the message that you do not belong here.  Most streets don’t look safe for cycling and walking, let alone inviting.  Many people want to take advantage of the time and money saving benefits of making short journeys on foot or by bicycle, but they don’t think they can.

There is nothing natural about this state of our streets.  They do not just spring up out of the fields with four lanes and a row of parking places outside the shops and no room for pedestrian crossings or cycle lanes.  Somebody designs them that way, and that somebody is in some way an agent of “The State”.  The state can’t not “intervene” in streets; it has a number of choices for what to do with streets, but all of them amount to an “intervention”, and all of them affect our lifestyle choices.  Designing streets with only the needs of the motorcar user in mind has been a massive state intervention preventing people from making journeys on foot or by bicycle, even if they had really wanted to. Funding infrastructure and projects to make it possible for them to make those journeys is not forcing anybody to cycle.  It is not state intervention.  It’s providing a level playing field.

We’ve reached a point where most of the people alive in this country today have always lived in an era of mass car ownership.  Over half of the population were born after the first motorway opened.  People have a habit of believing that the world they grow up in is the natural and objectively correct way for the world to be; that if it were any other way the world would collapse.  Which is a problem when it comes to our city streets, which over the past fifty years have been designed extremely badly, in what we can objectively say was the wrong way.

“Driving has never cost more”

End to the war on the motorists?  No, driving’s never cost more,” declares Mark King, Money Editor, in The Observer today.  To be fair to King, he doesn’t actually say anything as absurd as that driving has “never cost more” in his article — but newspaper headline writers have never let reality or the actual content of an article get in their way.

Why would a headline writer, having glanced at a boring but reasonable article about saving money, think to write “driving’s never cost more”?  Where did they get that idea from?

Are cars more expensive than ever?

You would guess not: the manufacturing process has become vastly more efficient over the decades.  But it was really difficult to find data on this.  By difficult, I mean Google, Google Scholar, Wikipedia and WolframAlpha all failed to find anything useful with my keywords (thanks perhaps to the hundreds of excellently search engine optimised spam sites), and I’m too lazy to do proper research.  Instead, I pulled out a quick and crude graph of the US consumer price index for new cars compared to that for all items, showing how the cost of purchasing a car has fallen compared to general inflation in the cost of living.  (Obviously there is a plethora of caveats with this data and the contributory factors to the cost of living over here are quite different to the US — if anybody can find a more appropriate data set, please let me know.  Data from the UK for 1997-2009 is given further down the page, and shows a massive fall in the price of a new car even over that short time.)

Is fuel more expensive than ever?

Mark King could have read his own newspaper to find out that, no, fuel is not more expensive than ever.  Fuel prices are high, and Motorists can’t hide from the fact that dwindling resources are ever more difficult and dangerous to harvest.  They’re at the top-end of the post-war range, but not outside of the range that we should be used to:

That must be because oil is getting cheaper, right?  Because everybody knows that fuel tax is always going up.  Actually, as Mark King’s own editor pointed out in October, thanks to repeated freezes in fuel tax to appease the tabloids and roads lobby fuel duty remained 11% down on 1999 rates when inflation was taken into account.

So the price-per-litre is high but not exceptional.  But during all that time, the amount of distance you can get for that litre has been rising as cars get more fuel efficient.  Wikipedia has a graph for average fuel efficiency of car models available in the US.  (Average fuel efficiency of cars on the road, in the UK at least, will be higher and may not follow exactly the same trend, because we purchase more cars at the high end of the fuel efficiency range.)  You may be paying a little bit more each time you fill up, but unless you are driving further, you should have found yourself filling up less frequently over the years.

What about the other costs?

Is it more expensive than ever to pay your “road tax“?  Only if you have a really absurd car.  You could pay £950 in the first year of owning a car that emits over 255 g/km CO2.  But only expensive SUVs and sports cars fall into that category — if you own such a car, you are already rich enough to not notice the tax.  Normal cars fall in the top three or four tax bands, where tax has fallen and owners will pay only a token amount of tax, if they pay anything at all.

I couldn’t find much information on maintenance and insurance costs — though I didn’t try very hard, since these are not a significant proportion of overall costs anyway.  If anybody can find good data, I’ll add these to the post.

One area where “costs” might be rising is in depreciation — the decline in resale value.  People aren’t buying second hand cars so much, for all sorts of reasons — because new cars are so cheap (especially during the scrappage scheme and with all the other government subsidies) to the fact that nobody who buys second hand cars wants an old inefficient SUV.

So driving is more expensive than ever?

Mark King (or his headline writer) could have read his own newspaper to see that the Department for Transport estimate that the cost of driving fell 9% between 1980 and 2007.  Alternatively they could have read the Economist last month, which estimated an even more dramatic fall in the cost of driving — especially compared to the rise in disposable income — even during Labour’s famous “War On The Motorist”:

A lot of things happened in the past 18 months, but it’s not plausible to suggest that this trend has completely reversed.

Why do so many people think driving is more expensive than ever?

I don’t think they do.  Most people who are complaining are trying their luck.  Some of it is recall bias — they just don’t accurately remember how expensive cars and fuel used to be.  Some of it is the fact that the costs which are falling — annual VED and upfront vehicle purchase — are one-off or rare payments that one forgets about, unlike the weekly payment at the petrol pump, even though for most people the cost of the vehicle still makes up the bulk of the cost of driving.  Some of it is the Daily Express, the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and the rest of the roads lobby talking bollocks about the poor hard done by Motorist.  But, really, most of the car users I know are complaining about the costs no more or less than they always have.

What is probably true is that motoring is a painful cost for many people.  But paradoxically, it’s the fall in the cost of motoring that has caused this problem.  During the good times of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, more and more people have built themselves into a car dependency.  Car ownership is higher than ever because the cost has been falling for so long.  And so, with everybody owning a car, our houses have moved further from our work places, our village shops and services have closed, and the bus service has been withdrawn.  This in turn pushes more people to buy and run a car, even if they can not really afford to do so and were quite happy living without one until the shops closed.  And when the good times turn bad — when wages are frozen, when office locations are merged, and when redundancies are handed out — you can not simply give up the car.  The world changed.

Driving is not more expensive than ever.  Fuel is not more expensive than ever.  Not even fuel tax is more expensive than ever.  Claims that they are don’t even come close to reflecting reality.  And for most people, the fall in the cost of vehicles is far more significant than the cost of fuel.

Rather, ever more people who can not really afford it have been conned by false promises of the aspirational and “liberating” car lifestyle or forced into car dependency against their will.  And the tabloid media and Motoring lobby want to capture the few who are left.  Our politicians and planners should be liberating poor and rural people from that expensive car dependency, not keeping them captive right on the threshold of what they can afford.

This is a hastily thrown together blog not a scholarly article — if you spot something not quite right, do let me know so that it can be corrected.