Let’s not start a car culture war

There is no war on motorists. When planning public transport, we must put people first

October 10, 2023
Image: Kenny Williamson / Alamy
Image: Kenny Williamson / Alamy

There is, apparently, a “war on motorists”—on which, the prime minister declared last week, he is “slamming the brakes”. It is, he insisted, “as simple as that”. New diesel and petrol cars will be sold until 2035, instead of 2030. Blanket 20mph zones will be stopped; low traffic neighbourhoods will need local consent; utility companies will be charged for digging up busy roads. There is talk of “freeing up” bus lanes.

Some of these measures make more sense than others, but none of this is “simple”. 

As for a “war” on motorists? Doubtless in Ukraine, they talk of little else. The term is over the top; our transport system is not a battlefield—it’s an emblem of the complex connections and trade-offs between millions of people. And what exactly is a “motorist”? We don’t talk about “trainists” or “footists”. “Motorist”, like “cyclist”, isn’t an all-encompassing identity; it’s a useful way for journalists to describe accidents.

I began to think about this because Sunak’s screeching handbrake turn happened while I was travelling across the United States. I visited New York, New Haven, Hudson, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin, all without driving. This was not an act of ideological zeal, but of realism about my chances of crashing, and I was definitely grateful for the occasional lift. Nonetheless, the trip cast the news from home in an entertaining light, because it was an extended encounter with what it might look like to follow Sunak’s new policy to its logical conclusion. 

I found sidewalks that just petered out, and bus services that did much the same. In Dallas, the one I needed ran barely once an hour, and elsewhere, only at peak times. When I arrived in Fort Worth, which has a population slightly bigger than Leeds, there was no obvious way to stroll into the city without being run over. In Austin, walking along San Jacinto Boulevard from 16th Street and 14th Street—about 200 metres—I realised that most of the buildings, on both sides of the road, were multistorey carparks. 

Possibly, when Rishi Sunak adjourns to his penthouse in Santa Monica, he catches Los Angeles’ new metro—though I slightly suspect not. If he did, he’d see both how it helps open up a city that’s famously over-reliant on cars, and how desperate some public transport systems in the US are to try to get a wide range of people to use them. When I was last there, in 2018, the metro had two kinds of announcement. The subtext of the first was: “Thank you so much, those of you with steady incomes, for taking your life in your hands and using our poor unloved service! Please come back!” The subtext of the other? “Now look, poor people, we have finally managed to get a few middle-class people to venture onto this train. For the love of God, behave yourselves!” In Texas, I asked receptionists in my fairly low-rent hotels about the local buses. Both prided themselves on never going near them. Oklahoma City has a shiny new streetcar system which is almost totally empty. The announcement exhorting people to yield their seat to seniors isn’t really necessary. 

Some of these moves to ease the rule of the car do seem to be working. Shuttle buses run passengers from Union Station into New Haven for free—those who realise they’re not reserved for students returning to Yale, at least. In Austin, for some, cycling is a thing. I passed a pedestrian and bike corridor with restricted access to vehicles. Foot crossings halted traffic on major roads, even if one pavement was sometimes barely a foot wide. And the prices are incredible: an hour-long bus ride to the airport cost $1.25. 

But the American experience also makes the UK government’s war on the war on motorists sit oddly with Sunak’s other new affirmation: that he wants to revive towns. Up to a point, that makes sense. In 2019, as part of their successful election pitch, the Conservatives promised to restore a sense of pride in place, and of community and belonging. But the US, much as I love it, shows how putting the car first can have the opposite effect. A sense of place and community springs from the proportions and interactions of humans, not machines. 

None of which is to say that cars are a bad idea—being pro-train or anti-car is like being pro-arm or anti-leg. They’re both brilliant for some things, and rubbish for others. Sunak implicitly acknowledges this in the battery of road and rail projects he declared would be built with money intended for the now-cancelled northern leg of HS2. But, at times, America provides a glimpse of what can happen when one mode of transport becomes dominant, even part of a culture war. Cars are not sacred symbols: they’re just one of our options.