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Artillery Row

A nation of motorists

Metropolitan journalists do not appreciate how the nation travels

You can tell a lot about someone from their reaction to this graph. Some people — most people — will say that it shows roughly what they would have expected. Other people will stare in disbelief, or say that the figures cannot be right, or demand to see alternative measures.

The split in opinion does not fall along the usual left-right lines. It is not the university educated against the rest. It is not the “political class” versus the masses. The dividing line is simply between people who don’t live in London and those who do. In particular, those who live in Zone 1 of London (it is telling that even the city’s geography is described in terms of public transport).  

For a certain subset of Londoners, cars are optional extras for the rich. For the rest of the country, they are how we get around. When politicians say they want to stand up for motorists, as Rishi Sunak did this weekend, the denizens of Zone 1 use their outsized voice on social (and traditional) media to scoff at what they see as an attempt to curry favour with a weird minority of gammons and petrol-heads. In fact, it is public transport that is the niche concern and Londoners who are unusual.

In 2019 (the last year for which figures are available that weren’t affected by lockdowns), the British public travelled 873 billion kilometres, of which 84 per cent were taken by cars, vans and taxis. The average person made 580 trips by car but only 50 trips by bus and 33 trips by rail. 

The overwhelming majority of journeys are taken by car (61 per cent) or on foot (26 per cent). Only 5 per cent are taken by bus and just 2 per cent are taken by rail. Measured by distance travelled, rail performs slightly better with 10 per cent of all miles travelled while buses fall to 4 per cent. But cars account for a whopping 77 per cent of all the distance travelled.

The gap between London and the rest of the country is ridiculously wide. Only 13 per cent of the British population lives in London, but Londoners take more than half the nation’s bus rides. In London, 75 per cent of workers go to work by rail. Its closest competitor in this respect is the north-west where the figure is 12 per cent. In the north-east, it is 7 per cent. In Yorkshire, it is 6 per cent. In the East Midlands and the south-west, it is just 4 per cent. Only 27 per cent of workers in London get to work by car. In the rest of England the figures range from 72 per cent to 80 per cent.

The railways enjoy enormous public subsidies and are a permanent topic of political chatter. Rail strikes are front pages news. The annual inflation-linked hike in ticket prices invariably causes a storm of outrage. Opposition parties promise to nationalise the network. And yet trains are a virtual irrelevance to most people. In 2018, 39 per cent of Britons didn’t used a train all year and a further 15 per cent only used a train once or twice. A mere 9 per cent travelled by train more than 20 times, including 5 per cent who did so more than 50 times. If you are not travelling in London or to London, taking the train is so unusual as to be almost eccentric. 

The reasons for Londoners’ reliance on public transport are obvious

The reasons for Londoners’ reliance on public transport are obvious. It is a densely populated city that would grind to a halt if everybody had a car and used it. There is nowhere to park and the Congestion Charge has risen from £5 a day to £15 since it was introduced 20 years ago. Driving in London is slow, expensive and largely pointless unless you have heavy luggage or a serious disability. 

Most people in London use public transport because they have no choice, and yet Londoners with a Zone 1 state of mind have convinced themselves that it is they who are making a choice — the environmentally sound choice, as they will not hesitate to remind you — while the benighted people of “the provinces” are forced to drive around in cars because they have no alternative. This fosters the delusion that every part of the country could enjoy London-style public transport if only the government made a greater “investment” in buses and trains, and that the “war on motorists” is richly  deserved.

Whilst it is true that railways are deplorably bad in much of the north of England, there is scant evidence of pent up demand for bus travel and no reason to think that rail travel could ever come close to London levels. When people are given a meaningful choice, they choose the car. A survey conducted in 2019 found that walking and driving were the most popular forms of transport in Britain. Only 15 per cent had an unfavourable view of cars whereas 47 per cent had an unfavourable view of buses. Only coaches and bicycles were less popular, albeit only by a whisker (48 and 49 per cent respectively). And despite the enduring nostalgic affection for the railways, twice as many Britons had an unfavourable view of trains than they did of cars.

Public transport is fine when you’re a young, able-bodied office worker

Public transport is fine when you’re a young, able-bodied office worker with no tools, products or babies to carry around. Working to somebody else’s schedule is OK in London where there are so many people that TfL can send a train down the Victoria line every two minutes and be certain of picking up customers, but such a regular service would be horribly inefficient and impossibly expensive in most towns, let alone villages.

Away from the inner cities, most people have no great yearning for trains and buses, nor do they need them. While only 60 per cent of households in London own a car, that figure rises to 95 per cent in the countryside. If you live in London, your chances of owning a car depend largely on how much money you have, but there is no such socio-economic divide in rural areas. Once you have a car and the ability to drive it without being subjected to congestion charges, ULEZ fines, 20 mph limits and extortionate parking fees, why would you choose to wait for a train that is going to drop you off miles from where you want to be (thereby requiring you to take a taxi) or trundle along on a bus, stopping every few hundred yards? 

One of the worst things about journalists, wonks and other opinion formers living in central London is that debates about transport start from the perspective of people who exist in a peculiar bubble where economies of scale allow them to travel a few miles here and there on the tube more or less as they please. Politicians are often accused of being out of touch, but those who go back to their constituencies have a better feel for what life is like than those who get aroused by monorails or dismiss ULEZ as “a few bollards and barriers strewn across residential areas”.

Outside London, we do not suffer from “car dependency”, as metropolitan scolds claim. We enjoy car freedom. Britain is a nation of motorists. Get over it.

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