“Rail fares up by 13% but war on motorists ‘over'”
This was one of the headlines greeting bleary-eyed Londoners on their way back to work on Tuesday, as they flicked through the city’s free morning newspaper, Metro.
Why had the paper surmised this? Because on the same day that train, tube and bus fares took another hefty hike, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles announced the end of an alleged decade-long “war on motorists” by scrapping limits on car spaces for new homes and abolishing guidance encouraging higher parking charges.
This has several implications.
Firstly, in terms of encouraging a shift to low carbon living, it’s a bit bonkers. As the Sustainable Development Commission says: “Currently many pro-environmental behaviours are more difficult, expensive or outside the norm. Whatever people’s motivations, we have found that the key factor for influencing sustainable behaviours is how easy it is.” Making it easier and cheaper to park multiple cars, while making it harder to take public transport through price hikes, is clearly a step in the wrong direction.
One commuter told the Evening Standard he had started driving part of the way to work because of the fare increases and cancellations of local train services. Is this the kind of behaviour the ‘greenest government ever’ really wants to encourage?
As researchers from Cardiff University have pointed out, “broader structural factors such as the availability and price of goods and services” – in this case transport – have a big impact on our behaviour. And as the MINDSPACE report says, the behaviour of individuals is “the product of a wider system: if the pressures and incentives in this system remain the same, a person’s attempts to change their actions may not be sustained.” In other words, if the price, infrastructure and availability of transport all push people towards driving, then no amount of information or small incentives are going succeed in changing their behaviour.
The narrative promoted by Pickles’ announcement is also problematic. The “war on motorists”, like the tabloid branding of food waste collection as “slop buckets” provokes a potent emotional response. Never mind the fact that, as George Monbiot argues, it’s difficult to see how anything resembling a “war” on motorists has been taking place anywhere outside tabloid-land, or the fact that a separate, regular, food waste actually means your bin will be much cleaner.
These powerful stories, which evoke a picture of ordinary hard-working motorists under siege, and of tree-huggers trying to undo civilisation as we know it, are misleading and dangerous. They feed in to a greater popular narrative that ‘environmentalists’ are trying to make life worse for the ordinary man (or woman).
These twin decisions on trains and cars on the same day also send out a message about how important the government thinks climate change and other environmental issues are. It’s well known that people are put off making changes in their own lives if they don’t feel that government is making a consistent effort too. ‘Why should I bother trying to drive less if government just keeps making the alternatives more difficult?’ some might well ask.
There are other practical implications of scrapping parking restrictions. More space for cars with newly built houses is likely to mean either fewer houses, or houses sprawling further into the countryside, thus further encouraging car use. If this move leads to more multiple car ownership (because people have the space) and more cars on the street (because people can afford the parking), it will only serve to further normalise driving and owning multiple cars.
Government cannot enable people to live more sustainably by introducing a little nudge here and there while the system as a whole is shoving them firmly in the opposite direction. This move on transport is akin to claiming to fight childhood obesity while putting up prices at leisure centres and scrapping restrictions on advertising junk food to children.
The Metro is not a green publication – it hasn’t juxtaposed government’s actions in making rail travel harder and car travel easier because it has a particular environmental interest. This is simply the message that the government appears to be sending out through its actions. In terms of driving sustainable travel behaviour (no pun intended) the government is heading in the wrong direction.