It is time we had a ‘Stoptober’ for our car driving habit

CROYDON COMMENTARY: In his lifetime, PETER UNDERWOOD has seen a vast reduction in the number of people smoking. He says we need to break our dependency on something else, too

Croydon Tories have decided to oppose LTNs, in wards they don’t represent, over a policy instigated by their parliamentary colleagues

We all know that smoking cigarettes and forcing others to breathe our smoke is bad for our health and bad for theirs.

So why do we have a different attitude when it comes to exhaust fumes from our vehicles?

October is “Stoptober” – the month-long NHS campaign to help people stop smoking. The science is clear that breathing in cigarette smoke is harmful; the vast majority of us would see this NHS campaign as a Good Thing. Quitting the addiction to tobacco is difficult but we know that in the long run, it is good for people’s health.

Although there was some resistance as the time, stopping people smoking in offices and public buildings has been good for all of us.

Both a greater understanding of the science and the restrictions on where you can smoke have sent a clear public message about its harmful effects. This has meant that the proportion of adults who smoke has fallen from more than half the population to only around 1 in 7 today.

So why don’t we do the same with people’s habit of jumping in the car when they could walk, cycle, or take public transport instead?

The science is similarly clear that the pollution from exhaust fumes is contributing to the early deaths of tens of thousands of people in this country every year. Children are particularly badly affected as their developing lungs are damaged and evidence is mounting of other long-term health effects from polluted air.

Children are particularly badly affected by exhaust fumes from diesel- and petrol-fuelled cars

And, just like with smokers, it is the people producing the fumes that are most effected – exhaust pollution is worse inside a car than outside. So driving children to school is the equivalent of making them sit in the car with you while you smoke.

Now I am not saying that everyone can instantly stop driving. While that would be fantastic for our health and the health of the environment around us, it is not a change we can make overnight. There are some people who have mobility issues and need a vehicle to get around. And there are some people, like me, who drive a vehicle as part of their job.

The habit I think we need to break is the one of just automatically getting in a car whenever we want to go anywhere. Most of us don’t have a mobility impairment. Most of our journeys are not unavoidable. Transport for London estimates that one-third of journeys by car in London are less than two kilometres.

These are journeys we could make on the bus, tram, or train or ones we could cycle or walk. So why don’t we?

Unfortunately, like smoking, the habit of jumping in a car appears to be difficult to break. Just like cigarettes, cars have been marketed as a symbol of freedom and fashion and people have been duped into believing it. And, just like other addicts, car drivers come up with all sorts of spurious reasons why they “have to” drive, instead of facing their addiction.

So what can we learn from the stop smoking campaigns?

The first I would suggest is starting to wean yourself off slowly. When I wanted to cut down smoking, I decided to cut out certain cigarettes, like the after-dinner one or the tea break one. In the same way, are their certain journeys that you regularly do that you could try without a car?

I also used to cut down by seeing how long I could go without a cigarette so my first one happened later and later each day. Similarly, could you try having a car-free day every so often and then maybe see if you could do it once a week, then twice a week, or more?

For me, when my last car broke down beyond reasonable repair, I decided just not replace it. Yes, there were times when I found it irritating that some journeys took longer or were more difficult but I also discovered that it was not as bad as I thought it would be, and some journeys actually turned out to be quicker and better.

We all could, and should, do a lot more walking to get around

Over time I have got used to not having a car and checking out public transport times or walking has become my new habit. I have even started using a bicycle on a few journeys, although it is taking a bit longer to get used to and build up my confidence for longer trips.

One of the ways to help people break the driving habit is to make not driving a lot easier. We do need to invest massively in our public transport systems to provide easier, cheaper and more accessible services. We also need to invest in safe cycling lanes to enable nervous cyclists like me and people with young children to feel confident in cycling along main roads.

Unfortunately, the current government and the Mayor of London have shown nowhere near enough interest in making these things happen.

The other technique to help people stop is to make the habit more difficult. Smoking was banned in work places and then all public places. The transport equivalents are the introduction of school streets and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

As I said earlier, car pollution has serious effects on young children’s health and so reducing motor traffic around schools is an obvious choice to improve their health. It also discourages parents from driving children to school, which is good for the parents’ health as well.

Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, or LTNs, are intended to do the same thing for a much larger area. Now I know that LTNs are not without controversy but the evidence is clear that LTNs do reduce car use and increase active travel over the long term.

I’ve seen many people complaining that since the LTN was introduced the main roads have got busier. But saying that traffic jams are caused by LTNs is like saying that smokers only get ill because they have to smoke outside. It completely ignores the underlying cause: traffic jams are caused by too many people driving and that is the problem we need to tackle.

Yes, we do need to look at the design of LTNs to make sure that they work in that area. The LTNs recently introduced have been done on a temporary basis and Croydon Council assures us that there will be proper consultations conducted before any decision is made over whether to make them permanent. That is an opportunity to suggest changes that will improve the LTN.

LTNs don’t cause traffic jams. Traffic does

But getting rid of LTNs altogether would be like letting people smoke in offices and on public transport all over again.

I know there are concerns about the people living on main roads suffering more pollution because of traffic jams. I agree that it is unfair for them to suffer because other people insist on still travelling by car. We need to look at how to spread the traffic reduction effect to those main roads as well and speed up the traffic reduction effect of the LTN itself.

In the Green Party we have been advocating for a road pricing scheme that fairly reflects the length of journey and emissions of the vehicle, but so far the Mayor of London hasn’t made any real effort to explore the technologies that could make this happen.

But, regardless of which method is used to restrict traffic or boost other forms of travel, in the end the quicker we all break the car habit, the less of a problem this will be.

In less than one lifetime, we’ve gone from most people smoking to only 1 in 7 adults smoking, and most of those are smoking less. At the moment, just over half of people in London use a car to get around. We need to break that habit, reduce the number of people who use a car and drastically cut the number of car journeys the rest of us take.

So let’s do all we can to break that habit and encourage each other to quit altogether if we can. It will be far better for your health, and your children and grandchildren will thank you for it.

  • Peter Underwood, pictured right, is the Green Party’s candidate in Croydon and Sutton at next year’s London Assembly elections

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6 Responses to It is time we had a ‘Stoptober’ for our car driving habit

  1. mitsky says:

    “And there are some people, like me, who drive a vehicle as part of their job.”
    Everyone can claim they need to drive as part of their job.
    It might be worth mentioning the distance.
    If it is significantly larger than the TfL stats that the majority of car journeys are less than 2km, the above statement would carry more weight.

    “One of the ways to help people break the driving habit is to make not driving a lot easier.”
    Most people can cycle. You’re own example shows it can be done.
    Whilst there have been some efforts to make it harder to drive and easier to cycle, ie with LTNs and segregated cycle lanes… this cannot be done everywhere due to lack of road space.
    The single biggest factor putting people off cycling is safety.
    We all know that the law is not good enough to make people think twice about driving dangerously or maliciously around cyclists without serious consequences.
    Untill we can all be confident that the law is on our side, ie drivers think “Oh, I could get into SERIOUS trouble if …” then the majority of people will not cycle.

  2. Grace Onions says:

    So are we polluting because we drive vehicles or because of the fumes?
    I have invested (and it is definitely an investment) in a fully electric car and therefore generate no fumes whatsoever. Notwithstanding the arguments about how the electricity to charge it is generated and the dust from the tyres, my car can sit in a traffic jam and not pollute anyone, not even me inside the car.
    So if the fumes are a problem, electric vehicles would resolve that. If traffic jams are the problem then that is a different issue.

  3. Grace Onions says:

    Pollution is one issue, global warming due to carbon emissions is another. Driving an electric car does not contribute to local pollution, but only reduces carbon if the electricity is generated from wind or water.
    Many of my friends are now driving more because they are scared of catching Covid on public transport. From this point of view, an item on the BBC London news last night was reassuring. Researchers from Imperial College took swabs from a whole handgrip on an escalator at a busy station after the morning rush hour and air samples and found no trace of the virus. They also said that computer modelling in July put the probability of catching it at 1 in 11,000 journeys, which I would imagine to be less than the risk of a serious accident in car travel.

  4. Colin Cooper says:

    What a wonderful idea, now tell me how it makes any economical sense not to drive, for example, to visit our friends in Liverpool, which would cost £204 for both myself and wife to travel by train, ignoring getting to and from the stations either end, against £55.00 of petrol overall, especially as we usually take another friend with us, so add another £102.00 to that bill.
    This is all idealistic pie in the sky until fares are properly managed!

  5. Lewis White says:

    Thanks for the article by Peter Underwood. He makes an interesting comparison between car travel and smoking. It looks like we, the car driving public, will , within the next 15 years, be “changing brands” from petrol or diesel to electric, which will cut pollution on the streets substantially. Or maybe it is more like eating– and swapping eating meat for fungi- based protein.

    Looking at Europe, it could well be that by 2040, the majority of electricity will be generated by wind power in England and Wales, Hydro in Scotland, and maybe mainly by nuclear energy in France, and even solar in Spain. Thus should mean that the generation is not causing CO 2 emissions of the level associated with coal, oil and gas.

    That is all good, although there seems to be a huge, adverse impact on fresh water supplies in the surrounding areas, around places where mining of lithium takes place, at salt lakes in South America. Will world supplies of lithium also be enough?

    Recent design innovation by Imperial College students should also help cut the amount of toxic dust caused by road traffic, — this time, by an electrostatic charged element in a box, fitted in the wheelarch, which captures about 70% of the fine rubber particles shed by tyres as they rotate in contact with the road surface.

    Having said the above, I would agree that we need to reduce vehicle pollution now, and for the future as long as fossil fuels power most of our cars and lorries.

    It really is sad that so many people are now buying “SUV’s” which presumably make them feel more secure, but which generally contain up far more steel and other materials, weigh more, are wider (so wear out the roadside banks in rural areas) and emit far more emissions than a medium sized car. I would therefore agree with Peter that we need a form of road taxing that truthfully reflects the actual environmental damage caused by larger cars, and acts as an incentive to reduce the miles travelled.

    As reader Colin mentions, train travel is still more expensive than driving for long journeys, and I would venture, also for short journeys. In France and Germany, and maybe other EU members, train travel is cheaper than it is here.

    Someone metioned the longer time needed to get to places by public transport than by car. This is a real issue, as is the fact that that anyone in a job has far fewer leisure hours than a retiree in which to do the shopping, so car is normally quicker.

    My own take on this is that the real harm is done by daily car commuters into London from the adjoining counties. Plus van drivers who sadly have to drive a hundred or more miles every day to deliver things or do jobs in half a dozen counties in just one day. I hope that the impact of Covid makes us all question our transport impacts on the environment and other people, indeed, on our own health……. and drive much less.

    Every reduction made by us must make a positive difference……….. but the bigger picture remains largely in the hands of Government ( e.g road pricing) and science (vehicle and fuel design for lower emissions).

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