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
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.
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.
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.
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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