Get help.

Henry Ford is often quoted as saying:

If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse”.

VAT and fuel duty have just risen, while petrol prices continue to rise as it becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous to source at the same time that global demand rises.  The press seem to think that it’s time to make another fuss about the pains that come with the death of the oil age — to pretend that they could somehow be avoided.  What must be done to relieve our pain?  Fuel prices should be lower: customers want it, hauliers need it, The Daily Express Says So.  Labour think that the government could be “doing more”.  If only the government were to be fair and reasonable with the poor motorist, everything would be alright and the motorist would live happily ever after.

Henry Ford’s advice is not to ignore these cries and let things carry on as they are.  Nor he is telling us to arbitrarily impose things on people against their will.  But he is advising us to be cleverer than to simply provide the stupid and short-sighted solution that the consumer thinks he wants.  His maxim is accepted basic business practice: you don’t ask the client or customer exactly what they want, you ask what the customer is trying to achieve — what they need to do, what problem they are trying to solve, what ultimate outcome they are hoping for.  The obvious solution to a problem is often not the best.  Sometimes it’s not even a solution at all.

So what are the people crying over their fuel bill ultimately trying to do?  What people actually need to do is get to their place of employment.  They need to be able to get their food, and pick up their pension or get their kids educated.  They’d like to be able to see their friends, have days and nights out, and buy the occasional unnecessary luxury.  And they’d like their businesses to be able to source materials and ship products.  They would like to be able to afford to do all of these things.  Increasingly people are unable to do these things because so many have been lured into an expensive and destructive car habit, often entirely against their own will.  A tax cut, if it helps at all, is never going to help for long.  Fiddling with the cost of fuel is not the clever solution for getting people to work and to school; it at best puts off the crisis.

Unfortunately, like smokers and gamblers, car addicts get very defensive about their habit.  One very common theme is to cite their circumstances: there simply is no alternative for them but to drive.  It’s too far to walk, the railway was ripped up decades ago (just before the village shop and school closed), the buses go to the wrong place at the wrong time of day, and the roads are too dangerous to cycle on.  The excuses are all true, and mostly they’re used legitimately. The problem is that, like all addicts with their feelings of powerlessness, car addicts use these as excuses to do nothing except fantasise about a scenario in which their addiction is not a problem — a perfect world with lower fuel prices and a magical future in which the car can survive all of the problems that it has created for itself.  The car addict is never going to benefit from a financial break that further encourages their habit.  Fuel is not going to become more abundant or easier to source or less in demand.  Anybody who can’t kick the habit is ultimately going to get destroyed by it.

If you have no bus to a town with shops, if your schools are closing, if there is no safe route to cycle, if you are forced into expensive car dependency, why aren’t you outraged about that?  Those are outrageous things.

If it’s true that fuel prices are becoming a major problem for a significant portion of our population then it is an outrage that the government isn’t doing more to correct the failings that have forced so many powerless people into this expensive dependency.  If it’s true that fuel prices are such a problem for you then it sounds like it’s time for you to stand up, admit that you have a problem, and scream at the government not for another short-lived high, but for the help that you need to kick the habit.  If it’s true that this is such a big and urgent problem for so many people, then it’s time for Philip Hammond to put down the high-speed train set, stop pretending that this is a little unimportant job that our broke borough councils or the Big Society can handle, and come up with the big and urgent solution it needs.  It’s time to seek help, and it’s time for the government to provide it.

If it’s true.

11 thoughts on “Get help.”

  1. Great article…really enjoyed your points. I like many others rely on my car to travel 30 miles to work and back. But having said that, I could always take the train….and pay the increases that have been lumped onto the price of a rail ticket instead. I for one am not going to complain about rises in VAT or fule duty, if they dont put it on that, then they will find another way to recoup the debt this country is carrying.

  2. I wish the government would give the problem to the “broke borough councils”…along with the legal powers to plan development and transport, as well as an independent tax base. My impression is that local politicians really want to make a move on this problem, but are so captive to central government and other interests they can’t.

    I attended a meeting last summer of about fifteen elected local councilors from a very working-class part of England, and their opinion was unanimously in favor of the things you describe. I later attended a meeting of the PTE where the attendees were shown a “secret” map of areas where development would be dependent on car transport due to the distance from service and lack of public transport provision. The map couldn’t be made public because 1) other residents don’t like the idea of new housing developments near them despite the obvious and easy access to existing services; 2) developers don’t want the map to have official status and be used against them in planning decisions.

    So, yeah.

  3. “The excuses are all true, and mostly they’re used legitimately.”

    Ha! It always used to make me chuckle that many of the folk living on the train lines I’ve used would tell me how crowded, dirty and unpunctual they were. (They weren’t, and aren’t). Some people just really don’t want to stop driving.

  4. Enjoyed reading this, a great analogy.
    newbon99, of course getting the train instead of driving isn’t your only alternative option. You could move nearer to work perhaps, or get a job nearer home? OK, that’s easier said than done, but if fuel prices and road congestion continues to increase at the present rate, there will eventually come a time where a return to working nearer to home will become a bigger consideration. After all there is no point in spening an extra £25/week (on fuel to get to a job which pays say £1000/year (after tax) more, not to mention the additional amount of your day which is spent sat in a tin box.

  5. On the back of cheap fuel and cheap credit, we’ve built a society in which it’s seemingly OK to drive hundreds of miles a week just to get to work. Maybe this makes people more employable (I’ve certainly done my fair share of it), but I wonder what we lose with all that time spent sitting in little metal boxes, going no-where fast.

    So maybe higher prices will start to bring the focus on the true cost of all this convenience. Or maybe like all addictions, when the official price reaches a certain threshold, will the *ahem* more entrepreneurial free market step in? Expect to be offered red diesel next time you’re in a queue for fuel, and for your neighbour’s car exhaust fumes to remind you of Whitby’s Magpie Cafe!

  6. I moved house to Shrewsbury when I got married; it seemed silly to live in the middle of the countryside, which would require 2 cars (and driving lessons for my wife), 2 separate commutes and a trip out just to get the shopping or see my wife’s parents. Much as I love rural life it was not the right thing to do.

    After moving house I had to leave the house at 6:30am for 12 hours a day, it cost more than I liked and, most distressing of all, it wore me out. Six years ago redundancy was mooted I left that employer. Now I work a few miles from home. I look forward to my daily cycle commute every day, I am a lot healthier and, despite a lower salary, much happier.

    We chose to live in my wife’s home town, near her parents (a godsend), close to schools and bus routes. Our little semi-detached brick box may not be anyone’s dream home or feature in ‘Escape to the Country’ but it suits us fine. I have cut my coat according to the cloth and both my bank account and my wellbeing are the better for it.

    Everyone can make decisions to improve the quality of their lives but are constantly fed the idea that it’s quantity that will make them happy. So many people are hooked on the car for facilitiating everything they think they need or want, of trying to live a dream but not considering the consequences.

  7. Good article and Simon E makes a very interesting point. Adjustment is going to be tough, escalating oil prices will mean pain for some (possibly many) people, but adjustment is not just about finding alternative ways of travel as newbon99 seems to think. It is about Government, businesses and individuals making different choices given the changed environment. We need development in towns and cities that will reduce the need to travel. How we structure our lives can radically change the feasiblity of living that life without the daily car fix

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