A culture of automotive entitlement: the anti-cycling brigade

Thursday, 21st November 2013

Cycling been very much in the headlines in the UK. In the last fortnight 6 cyclists have been killed on the streets of London and today a young female motorist was fined for boasting on Twitter about how she accidentally knocked over a cyclist and did not bother to stop. To many the rivalry between motorists and cyclists is simply a matter of road safety and traffic management, but these modes of transport hardly compete. A human-powered bicycle could never travel as fast as an automobile, or carry as much weight. By contrast bicycles are much lighter, require only a fraction of the raw materials and take up much less room on roads and cycleways. They may often be a quicker means of travelling short urban routes or beating severe traffic congestion. Cycling also keeps you in touch with the outside world and naturally keeps you fit. Because cars and push bikes are clearly suited to different terrains and scenarios, many of us actually cycle and drive at different times. However, few die-hard motorists consider the real arguments for transitioning from a largely car-centric society to one where most daily travel in urban areas can be accomplished by a combination of walking, cycling and public transport. Many motorists think of cycling as a mere sport, something you might do to keep fit or before you pass your driving test. When they see cyclists invading their road space and apparently obeying a different set of rules, their only consideration is often the safety of other drivers or pedestrians who have just alighted from their vehicles. To them the presence of cyclists on busy trunk roads conjures up images of trapeze artists walking on overhead powerlines. Cyclists, so they think, are their own worst enemies and apparently do not pay road tax. In truth motorists pay Vehicle Excise Duty, but the true cost of road construction and maintenance is born by all tax payers.

You may think the concept of entitlement culture only applies to welfare dependents or pampered teenagers. I would extend it to anyone who assumes they are entitled to consume much more than their fair share or a lead a lifestyle that clearly could not be sustainably shared by everyone else. While television and later the Internet may have played a major role in reshaping our culture, the personal motor vehicle has completely transformed our neighbourhoods, urban architecture and most importantly consumption patterns. While TVs and radios may have spread awareness of new consumer products, car ownership is the biggest predictor of high consumption levels. If you don't own a car, you will tend to buy a lot less, simply because you lack the means to bring it home. Supermarkets grew in parallel with mass motoring. Once you have a car and a deep freeze, you can do the weekly shop, fill your shopping cart with special offers you may or may not need at some time and consign local convenience stores to a subsidiary role as an emergency dispenser of items you forgot to buy at the out-of-town hypermarket. Supermarkets sell much more than just food. A casual survey of a typical British trolley will reveal plenty of booze, snacks, DVDs, magazines, electronic gadgets, beauty products etc. If you had to carry all that home by bus or bike, you might think twice about such mindless purchases. If you think all this hyper-consumption is environmentally sustainable or office workers somehow truly earn their worth in all the stainless steel, aluminium, plastic, wood and above all oil required to support their lifestyle, then think again.

In the first three decades of the consumer boom, circa 1960 to 1990, only a small fraction of the world's population really participated. In considering our planet's human carrying capacity, per capita consumption is clearly a major factor. Feeding seven billion people with the typical consumption patterns of rural Indians or Tanzanians may well have its challenges, especially as current forecasts suggest a population peak of around nine to ten billion and major climate disruption, sustaining a fleet 4 to 5 billion motor vehicles would be practically multiplying our total human consumption by a factor of four to five. Yet if we want Indians, Chinese, South Americans and Subsaharan Africans to all enjoy the wonders of automotive bliss and retail therapy, we would not only need the resources to manufacture all these vehicles, but also the vast network of roads, car parks, fuel depots, charging stations, refineries, nuclear power stations etc. required. Even today, large swathes of land outside opulent regions are inaccessible to cars. If you have travelled off the beaten track in countries as disparate as Bolivia and Zambia you may have seen the remnants of roads built a decade earlier with the proceeds of international aid, with pothole-ridden asphalt suddenly yielding to dirt tracks traversable only by large trucks and off-road vehicles.

In 1970 the UK had 20 million vehicles, but the world as a whole had just 200 million for 4 billion people. By 2000 the human population had risen to just over 6 billion, but the number of motor vehicles had grown to 600 million. Largely due to phenomenal growth in China and to a lesser extent in India, we now have over 1 billion motor vehicles (800 million cars) globally. Increased demand for fuel is only part of the problem. A typical compact car consumes twice as much in production than it does on the road. Its manufacture requires 150,000 litres of water, 1 tonne of steel, aluminium and plastic and an estimated 20 000 million joules of energy.

If we are too make it as a species and avoid more resource wars, some of us will actually have to consume less, and that actually means drive less and own fewer cars, but also ensure the vehicles we do have last longer. That means restructuring our lives around walkable or cyclable urban areas in proximity to efficient public transport and reducing the need for much travel. Information technology can help us through remote working, but farming and manufacturing could also be localised. With good planning cars, trucks and buses (for they will not disappear any time soon) should be separated from bikes and pedestrians. A network of cycleways, as in most German and Dutch cities, should make it possible to pedal across our towns without disturbing motorised traffic except on residential roads with a 20mph speed limit.

Many motorists fail to realise the human and environmental costs of their lifestyle, but when a future economic crisis forces them to give up the relative convenience of a car, they may well regret not practising their self-powered locomotion skills.