What is a Motorist?

Last month I seemed to simultaneously hit a mark and touch a nerve with I don’t pay road tax.  Nik raised some dissent:

I do have a bit of an issue with your post painting all motorists as fat, lazy, inconsiderate, unable to change, destroying the environment, and so on. I do have a car, which I use to travel longer distances, particularly to countryside areas that don’t have train services, or whose train services are so inconvenient that using them is impractical. And I do even, occasionally, drive in London. […] I don’t like the ‘at war with motorists’ tone, which is neither constructive nor reasonable, and risks dogmatically painting all motorists with the same brush, and also ignores the fact that outside of densly populated areas such as London, public transport is often patchy to non-existent, and people often have no choice but to drive.

The issue here is the Nik seems be identifying himself as a Motorist.  He seems to have fallen for the line of the tabloid and Top Gear media: that there are Motorists, and there are a few lonely losers and hippies who are either too poor or too misguided to drive.  In fact, just as there are several different kinds of bike user, Jillian Anable’s 2005 paper, ‘Complacent Car Addicts’ or ‘Aspiring Environmentalists’? Identifying travel behaviour segments using attitude theory (PDF link), identified six distinct attitudes to the car amongst day-trip travelers questioned at two National Trust properties near Manchester.

Motorists — the active advocates and pillars of Motorism — amounted to less than half of the car owners and drivers.  Motorists themselves can in turn be divided into two categories.  The Die Hard Drivers “are fond of cars and car travel, believe in the right to drive cheaply and freely and have negative feelings towards all other travel modes.”  Meanwhile, the Complacent Car Addicts “admit that the use of alternative modes is possible, but do not feel any moral imperative or other incentive to alter their car use.”  That is, there are lazy and selfish Motorists, and then there are actively evil Motorists.  No blog post is ever going to change their minds about using a car.

The section that Anable unfortunately chose to call Malcontented Motorists, are in fact not Motorists — not advocates of Motorism — at all.  Drivers in this section ” perceive a high number of constraints to the use of public transport despite feeling increasingly frustrated and unhappy with car travel and believing that they have a moral responsibility to change behaviour.”  They sound very much like the people for whom “public transport is often patchy to non-existent, and have no choice but to drive.”  These people don’t need a blog post to change their minds: they need a bus or bike path that goes where they need to go, or a better planned town that still has local jobs and shops.  (They might appreciate a blog post that helps them achieve that, though.)

The final section of Drivers are the Aspiring Environmentalists, who “have already substantially reduced their car use largely for environmental and health reasons but appreciate the practical advantages of car travel and are thus reluctant to give up ownership entirely.”  I am guessing that Nik is in this category.

Here are the numbers, also including the remaining categories — those who don’t drive out of choice (5) or necessity (6) (remember though: while the 6 categories probably apply throughout the population, albeit with blurred boundaries, the proportions given here are specific to the sort of people who decide to visit National Trust-owned historic buildings and gardens near Manchester on a certain day half a decade ago):

  1. Die Hard Drivers, 19%
  2. Complacent Car Addicts, 26%
  3. Malcontented Motorists, 30%
  4. Aspiring Environmentalists, 18%
  5. Car-less Crusaders, 4%
  6. Reluctant Riders, 3%

Acknowledging the varied attitudes of people who drive, the relative frequencies of those opinions, and the receptivity of those people to change their opinions and behaviours, is important for understanding things like the demand for speed cameras and segregated infrastructure (and the likely scale of opposition to these things), and the best way to pitch transport and town planning campaigns.  More on those issues in later posts.

As for whether declaring a “war on the Motorist” is helpful or constructive: our “about” page explains where the phrase came from, and our tongue-in-cheek adoption of it.  If a reader actually believes the tabloid reports of the “war”, I don’t think there’s much we could ever do to help them. Motorists are not our audience, and were never intended to be.  But we welcome all you other car users as allies, fellow victims of bad planning and policy, intelligent enough to recognise the absurdity of the idea that there has been a “war on the motorist”.


9 thoughts on “What is a Motorist?”

  1. It is a shame that those in the first two categories are vocal enough to make it appear that they speak for all users of private motor vehicles. I get the impression that a number of the people who identify themselves as being within one of the remaining groups are actually merely trying to come across as nicer people without having any intention to move away from car-dependency. I have personally heard cries of “public transport is often patchy to non-existent, and have no choice but to drive,” from people travelling to work by car along major bus routes with stops at each end little more than 200 m from work or home. I have also heard cries of “feeling increasingly frustrated and unhappy with car travel and believing that they have a moral responsibility to change behaviour,” from people who have repeatedly demonstrated a resistance to walking distances of less than a mile instead of driving. It reminds me of how there is often a disparity between the number of people who vote Tory and the number of people who admit to voting Tory, some of them know that their choice will be seen as selfish or antisocial and so choose to lie about it to make them appear less selfish and less antisocial.

  2. I think the issue is that when Nik saw the word “Motorist”, he fairly reasonably took it to mean “motorist” as per standard English usage. Having done so, “I Don’t Pay Road Tax” read like a gross generalisation.

    Your post reads as if you consider your definition of “Motorist” to be a standard one everyone knows and follows. It isn’t. You can’t expect readers to know it and you shouldn’t criticise academics for not using it.

    1. No, of course not — I’m merely explaining an in-joke of this (and other) transport policy and cycling blogs for those who dropped in at the previous post. As Mr Colostomy says, it’s a joke that has itself built up around the tabloid and Tory media’s own attempt to redefine the word “motorist” as being somebody who is pro-car, pro-speed, anti-fuel duty, anti-bike, anti-bus and anti-enforcement, etc, while continuing to use it to mean (in the reader’s mind) “everybody who uses a car”.

      I fear as the blog gets a wider readership I need to employ a more liberal use of tags :(

  3. These figures are similar to those resulting from research by Lynn Sloman and published in her book “Car Sick” where she demonstrates a roughly 50/50 split between the “Jeremy Clarksons” and “Complacent Car Users” versus the “Reluctant Car Users” and the “Aspiring Greens”. As has been said, one wishes that the latter group had a louder voice against the empty vessels of the former.

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