War against motorists?

This article was published in 2013, in Newsletter 110.

There are a few politicians who seem to think that if you do anything whatsoever to try to restrain cars, you have an ‘anti-car dogma’ and are conducting a ‘war against the motorist’. This was basically the thesis of Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He asserted recently that you had to tempt drivers into the city with cheaper and more plentiful parking in order for shopping to thrive. He also said that cyclists were being ‘given total pre-eminence’ here in Cambridge, a sentiment that most of us would laugh at after we had stopped being insulted.

Eric Pickles’ salvo against Cambridge shows he is from the same mould as former transport secretary Philip Hammond. This is an affliction that has been demonstrated across the board, but seems particularly a Tory disease, from Ernest Marples onwards. Perhaps it is because the car is seen as a totem of capitalism: a symbol of individual freedom (though what is cycling if not that?) and an economic driver or lifeline. So if you threaten the car in any way you are, in their eyes, undermining both freedom and capitalism.

Yet, with only a few minor bumps along the way, transport policy for Cambridge has been fairly consistent and steady over many years, promoted by a Conservative administration in Shire Hall. And it was odd that Pickles chose to target developments for Cambridge cyclists particularly as limiting to cars only a few days after the Prime Minister himself had announced major cycling investment in the city.

Wrong on his own terms

Whether or not you agree with the ‘anti-car dogma’ thesis, it seems to me that Pickles is completely wrong even on his own terms when he picks on Cambridge.

Motor traffic levels may have been pretty constant over many years in the central area, directly as a result of transport policies, but it simply is not true that there has been a restriction on car parking and nor is it true that Cambridge city centre has suffered as a result of restraint.

Transport policy has provided more than 5,000 public car parking spaces for the city over the last twenty years. The Park & Ride system has been one of the most successful in the country and has allowed the city to accommodate many more shoppers in cars in its five car parks (seven when you count the busway) than it could have done in any central car parks. There has also been no reduction in central public parking spaces over this time. The additional spaces are also (currently) free, though you have to pay for the bus of course (if you don’t cycle). Pickles was reacting to the maximum cost of parking in the most central car park for a whole day. But of course shoppers rarely come for the whole day, and charges are lower for more realistic shopping trips.

Importantly, central Cambridge is thriving. It may have suffered somewhat in the recession, but not nearly as much as most places. The streets are heaving with people. There has been a recent massive investment in central shops, with two major new shopping centres built, where in other places empty shops line the central streets and people go to the edge-of-town strip malls.

Just where is this negative effect that Pickles seems to think afflicts the city? Has he ever been here to study Cambridge’s transport system? Was he simply reacting to the central daily parking charge put to him by a journalist, which is right at one end of a spectrum that starts at free?

In most places where cycling is in low-single-figure percentages the economic contribution of cycling and cyclists is hard to see. However there is research Pickles is clearly not aware of that shows cyclists shop as voraciously or more so than motorists. It really matters in Cambridge where so many journeys are done by bike. Cambridgeshire County Council formally said so in March 2012: ‘this council recognises … the importance of cycling for the economic prosperity of the area’.

Cyclists given ‘total pre-eminence’

Apparently cycling is a transport choice of the elite, according to Pickles. Where does he get this stuff from? Has he not actually looked? Of course, ‘elite’ is hard to pin down, but when a third of people commute by bike and more than half cycle at least once a week, how can it possibly be an ‘elite’ activity? How can an elite also be a majority?

There is not a single main road in Cambridge where cyclists can be said to be strongly favoured in any way. And as for ‘cycling provision should not completely override concern for motorists’, the breathtaking arrogance and wrong-headedness of his position is just unbelievable.

Has he ever been here to study Cambridge’s transport system?

Take, for example, the Catholic Church junction changes currently underway. These will provide a little extra space for cyclists. However, despite the changes being made from a cycling budget, the county council made it absolutely clear that the overriding priority for the scheme was to maintain motor traffic capacity. Hence nothing useful is being done for cyclists on three of the junction’s four arms and on the other there is no space taken from motorists to make more room for cyclists.

This is typical of most schemes for cyclists: nothing can be done which removes any serious amount of parking or motor traffic capacity. It is why so many schemes over the years have ended up being half-hearted and inadequate.

Double yellows and speed humps

In a separate outburst, Pickles also said that drivers should be able to park on double yellow lines, bollards that stop cars parking on pavements should be removed and that speed humps were responsible for High Street decline (forget a £1bn increase in business rates and an extended recession -it is all down to speed humps). Traffic wardens are over-zealous. (What does that mean – that they should interpret the law by whim, or not do the job they are employed to do?)

Fundamentally Pickles’ outbursts boils down to a position where, if you cycle or walk, or use a bus or train, anything other than a car, you are a non-person, you simply do not count and do not matter. At one level you can view his comments as a response to a journalist cleverly pressing the right buttons on someone who has built this ‘only motorists matter’ view. The trouble is though, that Pickles can force some of this stuff on us through planning rules.

Let transport minister Norman Baker have the verdict here. He called Pickles’ comments ‘bonkers’.

David Earl