Cars and lockdown

John Stewart (who is a key campaigner for the Stop Heathrow’s 3rd runway campaign) became RoadPeace Chair in late 1996. He has written a thought piece on cars and lockdown.  He’s a fantastic campaigner, and now an advisor – his input is immensely valuable to RoadPeace.  Many thanks John for writing this piece.


The case for putting the car into lockdown

I will get straight to the point. There ought to be fewer cars on our roads.

It would cut noise, air pollution and climate emissions very significantly. And potentially reduce death and injury dramatically. Each year 1.35 million people are killed on roads around the world. That really does put the current coronavirus pandemic into perspective.

And, whilst the virus has tended to go for older people, road traffic injuries are estimated to be the eighth leading cause of death globally for all age groups and the leading cause of death for children and young people 5–29 years of age.

Isn’t it time to put the car into lockdown, only allowed out for essential journeys and the odd bit of exercise?

Electric cars, hybrid cars, hydrogen cars – they are all likely to be cleaner and a bit quieter – but they will still kill our people and clog our streets. Each year, according to the latest available cost estimate (1998), road traffic injuries alone cost $518 billion worldwide and $65 billion in low- and middle-income countries, which exceeds the total amount that these countries receive in development assistance. And that’s without taking into account the billions lost each year through congestion and the cost of noise, pollution and emissions.

But I can’t live without my car? I’m not so sure. Although the majority of households in England own at least one car these days, 20% of households don’t have a car which rises to 44% in the lowest income bracket. The proportion of households without a car fell dramatically from the middle of the 20th Century, but has been fairly stable for the last couple of decades.

And catering for the cars and their owners has been the focus of most national and local governments for decades. Cities have been redesigned around the car. Business parks, leisure centres and shopping malls are all about car travel and often impossible to get to any other way. The cost of public transport has risen much faster than the cost of motoring.

But I love my car. People do. Back in 1952, less than 30% of distance travelled in Britain was by car, van or taxi. 42% was by bus or coach, and 17% by train. As people got richer and cars got cheaper, the picture changed rapidly. It is not realistic to put cars into lockdown for good. But, unless we see them in lockdown for much more of the time – and develop affordable convenient alternatives and start re-organising our towns and cities around these alternatives – we lose a huge chance to cut noise, air pollution, climate emissions and road danger on our roads.