"No, people don’t drive because public transport is poor, and cycling is a rich man’s faddish luxury, the eco-cultists’ war against the car is built on fantasy and delusion."
That is the conclusion of David Frost, former Brexit minister and now sitting in the House of Lords. Frost, writing in the Telegraph believes that roads are at the head of the culture war in 2023. He says:
" Dip into social media with an opinion on cars, public transport, or cycling, and you’d better be prepared for some serious abuse back." "The Uxbridge by-election brought this to the surface. It was a single-issue vote about Sadiq Khan’s plan to expand his Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) – and the result showed that people in outer London really don’t like it."
"But make the case for cars in outer London – or anywhere else for that matter – and people will accuse you of wanting to kill children. Suggest that cycling doesn’t work for everyone, or argue that public transport can’t reach everywhere in the country, and you will be told you are a selfish planet-destroyer who would concrete over our national parks given half a chance."
"Ulez may not be a net zero measure as such, but it is certainly part of what I call the Net Zero Mentality. That’s the belief that it’s a serious possibility in a modern society for us all to live in the kind of place you find in the cuter children’s TV programmes, Camberwick Green or Balamory, where there is no traffic, no industry, and everything is available close by."
"This vision, whether its proponents admit it or not, underlies the '15-minute city' view of the world. In fact, it’s another of those prelapsarian fantasies that cultists have had as long as Western society has existed: the return to the lost Eden, living sustainably in harmony with nature."
"Those around the world who actually have to live such a life generally want to get out of it. But here in Britain, too many of its fanatical proponents are coming to power – for a time. Mainly they are Green, Liberal Democrat, or Labour, but there are some in the Conservative party, too."
"They get voted in because their plans sound warm and cuddly – but voters then tend to revolt against the specifics. That’s what happened in Uxbridge. That’s what happened in Brighton: even Labour seemed preferable to four more years of deranged Green policy-making. And it even happened to the so-called Conservative council in Canterbury."
There’s a reason for this. It’s that the normal needs of modern existence can’t be made to fit with utopian schemes for how we should get around.
"That’s why about 85 percent of journeys in this country are made by car. The only way that figure is going to change is if governments curb car use by law – as they are increasingly trying to do. "
"Public transport just can’t fill the gap. It’s good mainly at two things: moving people to and from the centre in highly dense urban areas like London, and serving the limited market for point to point, city centre to city centre, travel. Almost everywhere else, the fixed paths of trams, trains and tubes can’t cope with the different patterns of travel for work, for schools, for families."
"In short, they generally don’t go where people want to go. Even when they do, they don’t do so all the time; taking young children, pushchairs, or bags is cumbersome on trains and buses; and for many people there is a real safety concern."
"That is not going to change, because public transport is cripplingly expensive. Just running the railways cost £13 billion in subsidy last year – nearly £500 per household, paid by everyone whether you get on a train or not. HS2 has so far cost £20 billion and given us nothing at all."
"And look at the costs of expanding public transport in London. The Jubilee Line extension cost £3.5 billion – more than £6 billion in today’s money – and that bought half a tube line, ten miles long. Crossrail cost in excess of £18 billion, to a large extent running on existing lines. Outer London is four times as big as Inner. Just imagine the cost of a genuine new network that could get people out of cars. And then the fares. And then ask yourself where we would get all the extra train and bus drivers from. Then multiply this around our other cities and you begin to see that the problem is insurmountable."
"What about cycling, the other supposed panacea solution? Yes, it’s a bit more flexible, or can be. But for families or anyone carrying anything much, it’s even more difficult than public transport. It’s no fun in the rain or the dark. And it’s at least ten times as dangerous as getting in a car (the situation is similar in cycling paradises like the Netherlands)."
Studies have shown that the countries where most people cycle are small and wealthy – Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Austria. Cycling doesn’t make them rich – they do it because they are already rich. It’s not a substitute for normal methods of transport, it’s an add-on.
Apart from Denmark, all have higher car ownership than the UK. Apart from Norway, most of which is uninhabited, they all have more than twice as much motorway per square mile than Britain (the Netherlands has four times as much).
In the West, cycling is a luxury good for a small minority, the rich or people without commitments, the same kind of thing as food fads, farmers’ markets, or buying your carbon offsets for the summer holiday in Tuscany. It’s never going to be a serious way of moving people around – unless governments make all the alternatives too difficult.
"There is no point in kidding ourselves. In most circumstances, when people can use cars, they choose to do so. If we want people to use alternatives, the country has to get a lot richer. That means growing the economy and it means reducing tax and spend, not boosting it further. Vast new spending on public transport or cycle lanes is fashionable displacement activity, not serious policy."
"There is of course one last thing cars provide. They give you freedom. Once you have a car, you can go where you want, when you want. You aren’t limited to where and when the government, City Hall, or your local council, want you to travel."
"Even people in inner London sometimes want to go somewhere where TfL won’t take them. There will never be a substitute for this – and governments that value a free society shouldn’t try to force one on a free people."
This article was originally published in the Telegraph newspaper.