Anti-car rhetoric is rising amid climate emergency but not all motorists are out for a Top Gear-style jolly – Alastair Stewart

The genius of Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear was to make non-drivers love a car show.

The antics of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond when they were on the BBC's Top Gear entertained more people than just those with a car (Picture: Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images)
The antics of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond when they were on the BBC's Top Gear entertained more people than just those with a car (Picture: Shaun Curry/AFP via Getty Images)

From the mid-2000s to around 2013, the show was at its zenith. Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May were hilarious together. But they headed up a car review programme, a fact which always played second fiddle to their antics.

The 'car bits' were semi-interesting, but the shenanigans and the beloved specials made the show a global brand. And it is hardly a secret that they did everything they could to wind-up environmentalists.

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I was reminded of all this when I bought my first car last week. Are there any redeemable qualities to car ownership, or are we all Clarksons, Mays and Hammonds in the eyes of the green lobby?

Growing up, no part of my life in Edinburgh could not be reached by bus. Anything further afield could be reached by train and by taxi. Owning a car was not necessary.

I have held a driving licence since 2013, when I completed an intensive driving course as a requirement for a new job (I passed on my second attempt). After moving to Spain a year later, I drove intermittently, usually with monthly car rentals.

Those years in between have been curious. ‘Climate emergency’ has replaced ‘climate change’ as a household term. It is now much more common to be on the receiving end of criticism or casual passive-aggressiveness if you are condemned for not doing your bit. Or worse, doing too much driving, flying, or not enough recycling.

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Owning a car is still acceptable, but only just. Daring to speak of them as practical and fundamentally necessary can result in a staunch backlash. Rejecting the de facto emphasis on bikes and cycling for the same reason as some people need to have a car is tantamount to kicking a cat.

And, entering the Toyota Western garage last week, these things were on my mind. Weeks of research into buying a car also revealed the intransigence of some against anything roadworthy. Somehow, I was doing something sinister; I was bucking the entire environmental gamut of absolute should-nots.

I did not need to worry about being alone. Transport accounts for a quarter of Scotland' s greenhouse gas emissions, with cars making up almost 40 per cent of transport emissions. Scotland has nine million vehicles licensed for use on the roads, of which 84 per cent are cars. Over two-thirds of the adult population hold a full driving licence.

Scotland's Climate Change Plan update in 2020 set out a world-leading commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030. Green ambitions are one thing, but social pillorying another.

Rhetoric from the Scottish Government has always been confused about what kind of green and pleasant land it wants Scotland to be. Renewables and the green economy are our future, but oil and gas are also a massive foundation block for independence. An independent Scotland would apparently continue to allow the exploration and new drilling for oil and gas.

Yes, cutting down car use is a responsible thing to do when alternatives are available. But we must not lose sight that 'alternative travel' does not mean the same thing to everyone.

You may live by a bus stop or near a train station, but a car is a vital lifeline if you have a family or someone has a mobility issue. Worse still, value judgements are automatically made against those who do not have a visible disability but are blue badge permit holders.

Covid has shown there is an engrained social consciousness. When it is galvanised, it can do great things. But when it becomes a question of who is and who is not doing their part, danger lurks, for we all become judge and jury.

Scotland has mastered the passive-aggressive stare. You see and continue to see this with masks: there is a palpable judgment if someone is not wearing one in public.

One conversation recently with a particularly aggressive, environmentally conscious friend begged the question of why 'we' needed a car at all. He did not see the point – our good news became a source of chagrin for him. We lived near bus routes. Our jobs offer a mix of hybrid working.

We must all be wary of feeling we need to explain ourselves to one another. Our own circumstances for wanting and needing a car are inherently linked to disabled and older family members and being able to assist more generally.

Needing an excuse to get a car for fear of being judged is a remarkable shift from decades past, but there is scope for abuse. While we should all be determined to accelerate plans and proposals and schemes to make the country greener and fight environmental catastrophe, the messaging must be inclusive and practical to people's circumstances.

Schemes like low-emission zones to tackle pollution should be welcomed. These are the kind of measures that have the chance to shape broader strategies of town centres that are cleaner, better, and more friendly for locals and tourists.

Edinburgh’s city centre is a challenging location for those with limited mobility but who do have a car. Additional measures should be adopted cautiously. When the argument for low-emission zones is to protect vulnerable people from dirty air, we should also remember that new measures could impact on the very people they claim to help.

Our car news was happy news: a hybrid fit for our purposes, which happened to involve a family element, too. We will not be alone in this, and as anti-car rhetoric escalates, it is worth remembering people who use them are not always on a jolly.

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