Is car-dependence the new smoking?

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

Birmingham City Council launched their transport plan to establish the city centre as a car-free zone. It’s a bold vision which would promote greater activity and public transport usage in the city. After a 60 year reign, the car will no longer be king.

The Council’s plan was predictably met with poor coverage from local news outlets, keen to hoover up clicks from angry motorists on social media, many of whom wilfully conflating ‘through the city’ with ‘into the city’.

The plan would see cars banned from using the city centre as a cut through. Drivers would be redirected to the middle ring-road, rather than being allowed into the city and out the other side without stopping.

Twitter comments flooded in claiming that this will destroy retail in the city centre, despite the crucial fact that these vehicles are not stopping in the city centre in the first place. These views are likely held by the same people that believe pedestrianisation harms businesses, while also complaining that pedestrianised New Street is intolerably busy.

The only businesses that will be negatively affected by relocating drive-through drivers are the string of drive-through retailers in the Queensway tunnel, which have already had a difficult few years owing to them not actually existing.

"Cities are meant to stop traffic. That is their point. That is why they are there. That is why traders put outposts there, merchants put shops there, hoteliers erect inns there. Rationally one wants to have traffic *stop* there, not go *through*." — Kirkpatrick Sale

However, it is unreasonable and irresponsible to discourage driving without offering viable public transport alternatives: as has become especially apparent with the recent reliability problems on West Midlands Railways.

Yet over the last decade, public transport has improved significantly, as the increase in the number of people using it testifies. The number of rail journeys in the West Midlands has increased 121% in the last 10 years and it was the only region in the UK outside of London to see the number of bus journeys increase between 2018 and 2019, going from 259 million to 267 million.

Yet it is strange that many of those who point to a lack of alternatives to driving as their reason for continuing to do so also admit that if the alternatives were there they wouldn’t use them. Many motorists maintain that they have no choice but to drive but even if they had a choice they would still choose to drive.

It seems that regardless of how good public transport becomes, many of us are addicted to driving. We can’t seem to give it up. And that addiction is choking our cities, contributing to climate catastrophe and an approaching public health crisis.

Smoking used to be cheap and acceptable in all public spaces - but when we started treating it as a public health crisis, we made it expensive and limited where people could do it. As a result, smoking declined. Gone are the days when nurses were allowed to light up in the maternity ward, yet it is entirely normal to see queues of SUVs belching fumes outside school gates. Perhaps we need to take a similarly restrictive attitude towards car dependence as we have smoking, after all, the similarities are numerous.

They’re both addictive

Arguments against the smoking ban often centred around it being an affront to personal freedom. This was an illusion; that first cigarette may have been a choice but smoking 40 a day probably isn’t. Similarly, when presented with a myriad of public transport options, the continuing desire to drive can only be described as a type of addiction. When transport policy over the last half a century has ingrained car dependence, this is hardly surprising. In the 60s we redesigned our cities to accommodate them and in the decades since, built suburbia to provide space to keep them.

Paving Paradise to put up a parking lot.

Don’t get me wrong, no matter how good and accessible public transport gets, there will always be people in society who need to drive, or for whom driving is more affordable. Rail travel is perhaps prohibitively expensive for families with many children and some public transport being inaccessible to people with certain disabilities means that many in our society do need to drive.

Many able-bodied motorists who simply don’t want to see a reduction to their freedom to drive wherever they like bleat faux concern for the disabled whenever traffic limitation initiatives or pedestrianisation is proposed. This ignores the fact that many people with disabilities aren’t able to drive and that those who do are probably routinely held up in traffic by single occupant able-bodied motorists who don’t want to take the bus. Low traffic neighbourhoods maintain full access for those who need it, give blue badge holders space to park and create better mobility scooter friendly footpaths, crossings, and junctions.

For the able bodied who do need to drive, needing to drive is very different from needing to drive an SUV, or a supercar. If this requirement for a private vehicle were simply utilitarian, our roads would would be full of little hybrid fiat 500s - something cheap to run, easy to park and will get you from A to B. Even though the notion of a ‘city car’ is an invention of advertising executives and a contradiction in terms, our cities are not actually full of functional city cars because we have been conditioned to think that what you drive is a reflection of who you are.

Advertising tells you its cool

Smoking was a societally reinforced addiction that, for decades, advertising had been portraying as glamorous, sophisticated and cool. It was always the moody and complex characters in films that smoked. Smoking was an identity cue: defining yourself as a ‘smoker’ was just as powerful, perhaps more of a statement of who you were as what football team you supported, your job or indeed, what you drive.

For a long time, smokers were sexy and being one made you look interesting, you were the individualist at the dinner party who turned up in an Alfa rather than a grey BMW. Smoking was also a habit that cost money, perhaps the first instance of conspicuous consumption: if you smoked it was because you wanted to be seen doing it.

Especially amongst men of a certain age, what car you drive is important; it’s another instance of conspicuous consumption in which what sits on your driveway is indicative of your value. Bond had an Aston Martin, Magnum PI had a Ferrari, Greased Lightning wasn’t a push bike and you never saw your hero on a tram. Weirdly I can’t think of any leading women characters as strongly associated with their means of personal transportation.

Artwork by Foka Wolf - what does your car say about you?

The romanticisation of the car is one of the longest enduring cultural phenomena; you never see a 50s film where the young lovers take the bus to ‘make out point’. At one point cars gave their owners independence and freedom, but perhaps this idea was imported from America where there was seemingly limitless space for roads, space that we don’t have on our comparatively tiny island. In Britain, the open road doesn’t really exist: we had to create it by demolishing our Victoria metropolises and ripping up tram lines.

On modern TV adverts we are sold this same outdated idea of freedom, darting about pristine, and unnervingly empty cities. How this romanticised idea of driving is allowed to pass Offcom regulations is beyond me, especially as the reality for commuting motorists is congestion, endless traffic jams, buildings blackened with exhaust fumes and stress. Despite the whimsicality of thousands of motorists dancing on the roofs of their cars in ten lanes of stationary traffic, the opening sequence to La La Land is probably the most accurate depiction of the reality of being a motorist you’re likely to see on screen.

Expectation vs Reality

Car companies will continue to portray driving unrealistically because they don’t want cities to function better. They want to clog up roads so public transport becomes unreliable to force you to keep buying their cars. They want you to need to drive them. That’s what they’ve always wanted, whether it’s a gas guzzling pick up truck with a child-obscuring 10ft high bonnet or Elon Musk’s latest electric car with a ‘bio defence mode’ which tells you all you need to know about a car-centric future.

It’s up to national and local governments to create alternatives and provide policy nudges to change our habits, whether that’s more bus and cycle lanes or fewer city centre parking spaces. We also need to change our outdated and false idea of driving. We banned cigarette adverts, maybe we should do the same for cars ads.

It’s bad for you

Advertising has a long history of selling us stuff that’s bad for us and it has been up to government, or the ‘nanny state’ to push back against the negative effects of activities like smoking.

I’ve always suspected that no one actually likes smoking, it’s just something that’s habitual. Equally, when you’re stuck in a queue twice a day how can anyone really like driving? In both cases practitioners will defend the freedom to do it unencumbered to their [premature] death.

Car dependence mirrors smoking almost exactly in the way that it is advertised and how it persists despite all the information about how terrible it is. It’s not our own physical and mental health that we imperil with our continuing car dependence but other people’s. We understand how second hand smoking kills other people. Second hand driving kills thousands and many more every year. Where personal freedom intersects with the freedom to harm others is where the comparison gets particularly interesting; studies showing the harm of second hand smoking in part informed the smoking ban, but cars, whether you’re in one or being hit by one, killed or seriously injured 26,610 in 2018 alone, causing 165,100 casualties of all severities. Add to the numbers of those who die or are affected by air pollution in our cities and we are approaching a public health crisis.

Air pollution costs the city £470m a year and contributes to thousands and many more preventable hospital admissions. 25% of Brummies are obese and the same percentage of car journeys are under a mile - there’s something to be said for not being able to park outside your destination, even if it means that we homo sapiens must do something as unnatural as walking on our hind legs to get about.

“Many people will drive, even when they know they’ll be stuck in traffic they will drive. They won't drive if they know they won't have a place to park. That shows you the power of parking.” - Brent Toderian

Many people rail against the NHS for spending money treating smokers for preventable lung conditions, but you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would advocate denying someone care for similar conditions caused by 30 years of driving less than a mile to work rather than walking.

When such a great deal of traffic congestion is caused by an excess of short car journeys, it becomes disingenuous to suggest that driving is your only option for many journeys. When the Belgian city of Ghent implemented the plans that inspired Birmingham’s transport plan, the architects of the initiative received complaints from people that a drive of 300 metres had become a car journey of two kilometres because they were forced onto the ring road. The councillors had to explain that a city cannot support able bodied people using a car for a 300 metre journey: they should walk. The resulting reduction in congestion reduced journey times for everyone else, including those who genuinely needed to drive those 300 metres. In Birmingham, rather than benefitting from cheap parking, congestion is estimated by the Great Birmingham Chamber of Commerce to cost businesses £407m a year .

Ghent is now far more thriving than it ever has been, businesses concerned that encouraging a car-free environment would harm takings have reported the opposite. Glance at the yearly rankings of the happiest countries in the world and you’ll notice they are places whose cities are full of cyclists, trams, cheap buses, green spaces and public squares not abundant car parking. You only need to look at photos of Amsterdam full of cars in the 60s to see that with vision and political will, cities can be renewed and remade. Our current obsession with cars came about relatively quickly through social engineering in the mid-twentieth century but, as Ghent has demonstrated, it can be corrected just as quickly.

Ghentrification - the way forward?

It is now up to governments to discourage driving, pointing out the dangers it poses to your health and the people around you, taxing it to make it prohibitively expensive and banning it in locations to make it a more difficult to engage in all the while investing more and more in public transport. As a result of policy, smoking rates have dropped and more people consider it a dirty and unhealthy habit, rather than a glamorous affectation.

Birmingham City Council’s transport plan should be commended for its ambition and their efforts are to applauded as long as they do not lose sight of the bigger picture and hold out against the bleatings of angry motorists.

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