There’s a lot to hate about cars. In the centuries to come after the great oil crash, when archaeologists are poring over the remains of our society (presumably by wind-up torchlight), some of the most powerful symbols of our mind-boggling wastefulness will be the images of endless traffic jams, hundreds upon thousands of sterile gas-guzzling metal boxes, each with four empty seats and one frustrated commuter at the wheel, furious that they’re not going anywhere because the roads are so congested, apparently oblivious to the fact that they’re part of the same sodding problem. We’re fixated on cars for the same reason we’re fixated on owning houses; convinced that the only way to be successful and happy is to carve out a space of your own, the bigger the better, with as little non-voluntary contact with other people as possible. Then, of course, there’s the pollution: the carbon emissions, the noxious effect on air quality and the noise. But the news that petrol prices have reached an all-time high (thanks to a combination of high oil prices, the weak pound and an increase in fuel duty) shouldn’t be something for green-inclined lefties to celebrate.
I’d love a society where we’re less dependent on the internal combustion engine. I dream of the day when there are decent public transport links everywhere in the country and Dr. Beeching is burned in effigy. (Yes, I have odd and somewhat geeky dreams. I am aware of this and do not need it pointed out again. Thank you.) But raising taxes on petrol to get people out of their cars – which, according to Wikipedia is part of why fuel tax in the UK is so high and getting higher – isn’t going to achieve that, and is unfair and regressive to boot. There are some vehicles that I’d dearly love to see taxed off the road – Chelsea Tractors mainly, since it’s blindingly obvious that no one needs a four-by-four that’ll never go anywhere near a field – but taxing petrol is a very blunt instrument to achieve that. A lot of people have to drive, and plenty of those people aren’t rich. Sure, if you can afford to own and maintain a car you’re not going to be desperately poor, but you could easily be poor enough that having to shell out a hundred quid on a tank of petrol is going to hit you pretty hard. Whether it’s because their job requires them to transport a lot of equipment (as in the case of manual workers like plumbers or electricians), or because property prices have compelled them to live in an area with little to no public transport infrastructure (i.e. pretty much anywhere outside of cities), our society is such that a lot of people depend on cars or vans for their livelihood.
It would be great if that wasn’t the case, but if we’re going to start persuading people to use public transport, we need to make sure that there’s actually decent affordable public transport in place first (and better cycle routes, more research into renewables, more ways for people to work from home and so on and so forth). Our society can’t go on being as dependent on cars as we are now. I absolutely accept that. But trying to change that by hiking up fuel duty without providing any alternative to travel by car is just going to hurt those who spend the greatest proportion of their income on petrol already – the car-owning poor. Complaining about petrol prices may, at the moment, be the preserve of the Clarkson-worshipping petrolhead lobby, and I know it’s not pleasant to be on the same side as them in an argument. But in this case, they have a point.