Michael Kelly: The drive to greener travel is sadly misplaced
Consider the positives, and recognise that public transport is fighting a losing battle against the romance of the motor car, writes Michael Kelly
Possibly the most depressing news of the week came with the announcement that the UK’s most reliable car is a Skoda. This is information I do not want. Nor do I want to be told by those irritating self-appointed consumers’ watchdogs at Which? that it is half the price of another 4x4, the Range Rover Sport. Choice of car is not merely about how many times you need a service. That’s a wimpish, way to look at it. And anyway, the difference in reliability is marginal, probably accounted for by the great care top of the range car owners take of their vehicle driving to the garage at the least hint of trouble.
Not that the owners of cheap and nasty cars don’t pour ill-directed affection on them. The pre-War Citroen 2CV, the deux chevaux, is these days on a website devoted to its adoration as “a true symbol and historic monument of French motoring”. If that was the state of their technology no wonder they lost the war. And this perverse tradition is carried on today by owners who decorate their cars with furry toys, plastic vases for plastic flowers and who give their cars names. But I assume that this is a form of inverted snobbery at not being able to afford a decent car. I’ve not yet heard of a lottery winner buying a Seat Ibiza.
There have always been cars that will become classics available on the new car market. And the discerning motorist can readily identify them. My career in motoring began with a Ford Anglia, now iconic enough to star alongside Harry Potter. I then bought a Zephyr Four – the Z car of Bert Lynch and Fancy Smith. There followed a Ford Corsair, now featuring in George Gently, and a Lancia Beta HPE, worth it for the name alone, and a TR4. Then I was on to the big stuff – a Humber Super Snipe Estate, a Jaguar saloon, two Jaguars XJSs, another Jaguar Saloon. Currently I cruise around in a 9 Series BMW – ugly but a prestigious marque and a boot big enough for my golf clubs and caddy car.
And that is the problem with many modern shapes. They are all designed in wind tunnels – for efficiency, as if that were the No 1 priority in design. And they all look the same. Manufacturers now compete using the inside design and the number of faddy little extras they can offer. The point of buying a car is to walk out to the car park after a long business meeting and be able to say with pride: “I’m over there.” You can’t do that if you’re driving your wife’s Astra. Well, not my wife. She drives a Merc. But you get the allusion.
But, of course, the depression, austerity and middle-class “poverty” is eating away at the traditional fantasy of the car. I know one young lawyer who swapped her Jack Bauer seven-seat, tinted window Jeep for a Kia saloon because it came with a seven years’ part and labour warranty. There’s that insidious reliability factor again. How miserable it must be parking that in the station car park each work day. The attempt by down-market manufacturers to make their brands seem trendy must be resisted. Leave the Skodas to taxi-drivers.
But whatever vehicle you’re stuck with the motor car has been the great liberator of the middle and working classes allowing them to travel beyond their home town and back in a day, to season resorts, to the big city, to the countryside or from there to the town and now everywhere abroad. Some of my most memorable journeys have been by car – fighting through unforgiving Parisians, dashing through peeping Romans, cruising along Los Angeles’ relaxed freeways, racing through Houston at well over the limit and still falling behind, learning to match the pace and etiquette of the locals. Then there are the long runs, cutting across America in a luxurious hire-drive, gas prices at a minimum. On the desert haul from Albuquerque through El Paso (avoid it) to Galveston I spend the night in a tiny dot on the map called Fort Stockton which garrisoned the Buffalo Soldiers. What a surprise finding it as a central location in a Lee Childs’ novel. You wouldn’t get that bonus with a train.
The romantic dimension of the motor car is well recognised in British and American culture from Toad of Toad Hall through Genevieve and The Yellow Rolls Royce to American TV detective Frank Cannon who used his car as his horse in a pastiche of the Western, and Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer whose sedan was equipped as his office. It is this peculiar link between man and machine that ensures that ultimately the lobbies to replace it with public transport are doomed to fail. People enjoy using their own car. It sits in the driveway awaiting your pleasure. It takes you non-stop straight to your destination and waits there until you’re ready to return. It gives you personal space to enjoy, at your selected temperature, your favourite music, listen to your choice of radio, talk hands-free on your phone.
Let policy makers face the fact that they will never break up the love affair between man and car. Let’s stop vilifying those of us who do not want the sordid shared experience of communal travel. Let’s make it easier to get around. Consider the social satisfaction that should be added into the cost-benefit calculations when any new motorway is being planned. One of the more pleasurable experiences of this damp year has been the joy of travelling on the extended M74 in Glasgow. Not only does this Celtic Parkway cut the journey time from the south-side to the ground to 11 minutes but it reduces the run to Manchester by 20 minutes. Well worth the £692 million invested. It also has minor advantages like regenerating the area through which it runs and boosting Scotland’s economy by strengthening transport links.
The global ecological benefits derived from Scots being forced by legislation or the market on to inconvenient, inefficient and expensive public transport are derisory. Scotland contributes only a small fraction of the UK’s polluting gases and the UK’s output is dwarfed by that of the United States, Russia, India and China. They’re not going to stop just because we endure power cuts to satisfy our guilty consciences. At least, leave us our cars.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 20 June 2013
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 11 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: West