Cleaner air, fewer crashes

This article was published in 2000, in Newsletter 33.

‘Less traffic and lower speeds really do make life safer and healthier – for everyone. The protesters have proved it’

As motorists panic, and oil companies double their profits, for a brief period there is less and slower traffic and it is reported that there are fewer crashes and cleaner air.

We cyclists might have felt pretty smug during the recent fuel panics – until food started disappearing from the shelves. The shortages showed just how dependent many people have become on their cars. Maybe as cyclists we are a bit more in touch with the air and the traffic around us, and more inclined to care about it. A lifestyle that seems pretty straightforward to us is just inconceivable to people whose only mode of transport is the car. I am sure that, like me, you know people who have never been on a bus or a train.

But, whilst being impressed by the effectiveness of the demonstrators, I was rather frightened by it. If this is what a small shortage does, what happens when oil really starts to run out? I think there will be world war, as well as climate change.

Image as described adjacent
‘Singin’, just singin’, in the rain’

It was scary how much people said they were prepared to sacrifice for the sake of slightly lower fuel prices. This is despite the fact that, even with recent increases, the overall cost of motoring has not increased in real terms since the 1970s fuel crisis, and is now 30% lower in relation to household incomes than it was in the 1960s. This year car prices have fallen by between 10 and 20 percent. In contrast, since 1974, public transport fares have consistently increased well above inflation – 87% for buses and 53% for rail in real terms.

For part of the crisis period, I was in the United States. While we imported the demonstrations from Europe, the U.S. has been quietly seething too. I lived in the U.S. in 1983-4, when ‘gas’ was between 90 cents and $1.10 a (U.S.) gallon – about 15p per litre. Until last year, it was still only a few cents more than that. Now it is fluctuating around $1.80 and in some places briefly topped $2.

While the price of petrol is much lower in the U.S. than here, relative increases have been much higher because they are directly exposed to the market price of oil. Maybe that is one reason so many people voted for Bush (as I write this, we do not know who has won the Presidency). Assuming Bush is confirmed, one almost inevitable consequence will be the destruction of northern Alaska and its wildlife to sustain the American lifestyle and make the U.S. less vulnerable to world oil markets.

Here are some interesting behind-the-scenes news snippets that have not made the headlines:

The price of petrol really does make a difference to how people drive, contrary to the protesters’ propaganda. Government statistics show that a 10% rise in petrol prices results in a 7% reduction in consumption and 3% fewer miles travelled.

Oil companies have ruthlessly exploited the oil markets while all this has been going on. In November, BP boasted of ‘record performance’, announcing a near doubling of profits, and Shell increased its profits by about 80%.

How timely of the floods to highlight the link between climate change and fuel consumption! The media ignored this fact in the summer. They almost universally talked to hysterical motorists, and ignored the environmental lobby. We have had it fairly easy here – though several mornings I did have to cycle through six inches of water on my way to work.

But as cyclists, the most telling data came from Leeds and Lancashire. While cycle sales soared by 75%, air quality improved dramatically and roads became safer.

In Lancashire, fatal and serious road casualties fell by 58%, and all collisions by 45%, although traffic-reduction was only 15% in town centres and 23% in rural areas. The disproportionate reduction in crashes was attributed to people driving more slowly to conserve fuel.

In Leeds, there was a 21% reduction in crashes. Air quality improved by up to 40%. Councillor Elizabeth Minkin of Leeds City Council said, ‘We are all pleased that the crisis didn’t last any longer than it did. Nevertheless the week provided us with an invaluable opportunity to see what happens when fewer people use their cars. Many people successfully found ways to cope without their cars. The resulting improvements in air quality and the reduction in traffic accidents were very noticeable. For people who had to use cars, there was a significant decrease in congestion.’

Less traffic and lower speeds really do make life safer and healthier – for everyone. The protesters have proved it.

David Earl