While reluctant to draw any more attention to the latest utterance of that tiresome publicity junkie, Eric Pickles, it is an unfortunate fact that the ‘right to park’ is one issue that generates raised blood pressure in this part of Middle England, even among supposed advocates of sustainable transport.
Mr Pickles’ latest suggestion that motorists should be able to park on double yellow lines for up to 15 minutes has, rightly, been ridiculed, not only by pedestrian and cycling groups, transport experts and safety campaigners, but also several retail spokespeople and even some motoring organisations.
But while this is merely the most recent instalment of Pickles’ unrelenting campaign to remain poster boy for the lazy, selfish, unfit disciples of entitlement and overconsumption in our society, it does raise some interesting, and depressing, insights into the attitude of many towards both car ownership and their ‘right’ to park wherever is most convenient to them.
One of the more heartening set of statistics that has emerged in recent years for those of us trying to improve and encourage sustainable transport throughout the country, has been the fall in overall car ownership. In particular, the results of the last census in 2011 show a marked increase in the number of car-free households. Indeed, in Inner London, the majority of households are now car free, while in Glasgow that figure rises to 65%.
But yes, I hear you cry, that’s in the cities where they have buses, trains, the underground – and, in any case, you can’t compare London with anywhere else in the UK. Life is very different out here in the rest of the country. Too true, and as someone who owns a car, not because I want to, or indeed, enjoy driving it, but because I live in a place with negligible public transport, I am only too conscious of this.
But the point is, as clearly shown by this article even in Inner London where a majority of households are now car-free, infrastructure and transport policies are still, overwhelmingly, being designed round the needs of private car owners. So the requirements of pedestrians and cyclists for safe areas to walk, cycle and socialise continue to be subjugated to the demands of motorists, when instead we need far more than even a level field policy to try to redress the current imbalance in favour of private motorised transport.
This is not a war on the motorist. I am a motorist, but I make no apology for trying to discriminate in favour of the less powerful (and less destructive) pedestrian and cyclist in order to achieve a safer, healthier, more environmentally friendly and more inclusive approach to transport in this country.
Despite what Clarkson and co might try to imply, there is no divine right to own and drive a car. In the UK at the moment, more than 25 per cent of adults do not have access to a private car – mostly for financial reasons, but also because of disability and age-related issues – and the majority of them are excluded from all kinds of employment and leisure activities because of this.
And, in spite of Eric Pickles’ best efforts, there is also no divine right for motorists to park their vehicles in the most convenient places for them. One man’s (or woman’s) accessible parking spot is another’s obstruction or source of danger. Parking on pavements and cycle lanes is potentially dangerous and often makes it impossible for those for whom they were designed to use them safely, or indeed at all.
The last thing we need is an escalation of the simmering conflict between motorists and cyclists we already see in some places. But, if we are serious about trying to emulate the cycling culture of The Netherlands and Scandinavia, then we have to accept that our road space is not big enough to provide safe areas for walking and cycling, while still indulging motorists with the belief that they have a greater claim to the roads, as well as the licence to park wherever is most convenient to them.
The Government could start by belatedly recognising that Eric Pickles is just about the worst mouthpiece possible if it really is serious about trying to improve the nation’s health and fitness (its promise to be the ‘greenest-ever government’ now being totally discredited). Far stricter sentences also need to be introduced and imposed on those who kill and maim other road users through carelessness, inattention and breaking existing laws, such as mobile phone use.
But, above all, those of us who are motorists, but say we are in favour of encouraging more sustainable transport need to put up, or shut up. We can’t have our cake and eat it.