Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The anti-car lobby - then and now

Any outfit calling a report The Social and Cognitive Determinants of Aberrant Driving Behaviour clearly took itself seriously. So well it might. It is the Transport and Road Research Laboratory, Old Wokingham Road, Crowthorne, Berks in 1991. Its reports included An Examination of the Relationship Between Vehicle Noise Measures and Perceived Noisiness, and something called The Appraisal of Community Severance.
The Appraisal; not An Appraisal. That would have been too modest by half. The TRRL is not humble meek or unassuming, nor entirely unaware of how important it is to get a story in the papers. It helps sales, funding, budgets and safeguards jobs in the TRRL. Whatever else may have happened to the principle of balanced presentation of carefully researched information, it did not find refuge in Old Wokingham Road.
It may be hard to believe that TRRL reports carry much weight these days, but that is the road of the complacent and the irresolute. Even now they are being dispensed by the in-tray-load to the faceless clones of the apparatchiks turfed out of authority and influence by the robust citizenry of the former Soviet empire.
Dissidents in Britain should be aware of a TRRL document called Company Travel Assistance in the London Area, on the desks of bureaucrats in what we used to call the Home Counties, and in town halls up and down the country ere long. Its reactionary inferences will be eagerly seized by NALGO fellow-travellers and anti-car town planners.
The research itself was carried out in a tradition of eager inquiry and analysis by Paul Kompfner, Dr K Shoarian-Sattari, RHC Hudson, and DM Todd. The official digest was relatively anodyne; telling us pretty much what we might expect, namely that if you have a free parking space at work you are likely to use it. Also that drivers who have company cars are more likely to drive to their work place than those who haven’t.
It also concludes, a little sorrowfully it seemed, that heaping more tax on to the drivers of company cars and workers lucky enough to obtain subsidised train fares would not have much effect on traffic. The main attraction of driving to work, it concluded, is the door to door convenience (97% of respondents), lower cost than public transport (75%), and the need to make further business trips by car (60%). Half those interviewed disliked public transport because of overcrowding and 21% had no suitable bus or train links anyway.
Cogent reasons. No surprises here.
Yet in an effort to lend a little excitement to this Department of Transport-sponsored report, the press notice sent to publicise it was heavy with innuendo.
Note 'perks'. Perquisites can be defined as casual profits in addition to regular revenue, or something subordinates claim for their own. At their utmost they are a tip.
The press notice said, 'People who drive into Central London are more likely to have help with the cost of their journey than those who travel by train, underground, coach, or bus... Researchers found that four out of five car drivers received some sort of financial help, ranging from a company car with all expenses paid, to the payment of a mileage allowance or the provision of a parking space.'
Note 'with all expenses paid'; all the rhetoric of envy is here.
'By comparison, only 39 per cent - less than two in five people - using public transport received any subsidy. Of those who did, three quarters of them had a season ticket loan. Only a few received full or partial refunds.'
Pity the honest toilers disadvantaged by company bosses in cars. Dickens himself could not have wrung more pathos from such iniquity. You can just see Tiny Tim dying in the Underground for want of a full or partial refund.
'Over 12,000 drivers and 12,000 public transport users took part (in the surveys).'
The anxiety of the headline-writer not to let the facts stand in the way of a good story is in the best tradition of the old, now happily almost extinct, left-wing tabloids. It hardly relates to the main thrust of the report and does not reflect facts of the matter at all.
The report's official digest said. 'A sample of 24 businesses were surveyed by personal interview, and nearly 1900 employees were given self-completion questionnaires. Companies believed that the provision of company cars would continue to expand in the future (sic)... Both car and public transport users favoured the improvement of public transport over measures to improve the road system.'
You could be forgiven for thinking that out of 24,000 commuters, 9,600 received largesse to the tune of cars with 'all expenses paid,' and among non-drivers, a miserable few were scraping along on 'full or partial refunds.'
The facts of the matter were quite the reverse. Anybody who took the trouble to read the report, and not simply gulp down the conclusions in the press notice, would discover than only 13 per cent of peak-hour travellers entered London by car. By far the biggest number, 42 per cent went by rail, 36 per cent by Underground, 7 per cent by bus, and the remaining 2 per cent by coach. So far from most 'perks' going to drivers, huge subsidies were going to nearly two in five of the remaining 87 per cent which travelled by other means.
Put another way, out of a million people coming into central London during the morning peak a measly 130,000 were driving cars (carrying 0.3 of a passenger each according to the report). A bare 104,000 got some sort of help towards their cars' upkeep, and six company car commuters out of ten used their cars for further business journeys during the day. But, no matter, a hundred thousand hapless motorists, according to the TRRL, seemed to be accepting tips, perks, and other advantages.
Of the 870,000 on the crowded trains, tubes and buses, some 348,000, it turned out, were also on some sort of travel 'perk', more than three times the number of car drivers. Cynically the press notice attacked only car drivers.
There are meddlers everywhere who would like to ban cars and some, it seems, were at the TRRL in 1991 as now. There is no question that reasonable people would like to see public transport improved. Car drivers and train travellers interviewed agreed on that. Lots of us approved principles for defeating pollution and even road pricing to help limit traffic. We even liked the new approach to railways.
But bureaucrats and politicians who attack cars and drivers going about their lawful occasions do so at their peril. I can only suggest they heed the advice given to Mr Arthur Scargill at a TUC conference in 1991. 'Look east', he was told. So should they all, and see what happened to regimes behind the old Iron Curtain which, for forty years and more, repressed demands for personal mobility.
Remember the 1975 Nottingham 'Zone and Collar' scheme? That was an experiment dreamed up by some bureaucrat aimed at coercing drivers to leave their cars at the ring road and take a bus to the city centre. The traffic lights were programmed with long delays to hold up journeys to work. The theory was that drivers would fret so much they would take the bus.
They fretted all right. They fretted so much they ignored the stupid red lights and the result was mayhem. It was people power at its best. The experiment was declared a failure and the bureaucrats retreated in disarray.
Company cars are still in decline; we all know that and although the TRRL's survey found an increase over an earlier one carried out by the Greater London Council, they amounted to only some 40 per cent of the traffic. And the anti-car lobbying by petty officialdom goes on.
Picture: Classic of 1991, the Rover 800 Coupe with Her Majesty The Queen's P5 at Windsor Castle

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