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‘The War on the Motorist’ deconstructed — looking at the truth behind the myths

The first instalment of a two-part feature that examines some of the assumptions made about motoring in the UK

The so-called 'War Against The Motorist' has been around for years – in the UK it’s something the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government pledged to end immediately after the 2010 general election, a promise repeated by Rishi Sunak when he challenged Liz Truss for the leadership of the Tory party last year.

With the trope of how hard-pressed drivers are supposedly getting a raw deal regularly trotted out in some parts of the media, it’s timely to explore just how much of that is based on fact and how much is a myth, especially with politics in the UK and elsewhere becoming increasingly polarised in recent years.

In the first part of this two-part feature, we take a look at some of the general issues surrounding motoring in the UK, often ignored or at best glossed over in the media, with the second instalment going on to address some of the current flashpoints in this supposed conflict, the falsehoods being used to push back on efforts to get motorists to rethink their habits and make our towns and cities more liveable, as well as what the future may hold.

Why does this matter to cyclists?

Cyclist and car (copyright Simon MacMichael)

It’s worth mentioning here that while is of course a website focused on cycling, a straw poll of staff, albeit a small sample, shows above-average access to a car; the two of us without one both live in London, which is an outlier to the national figures, not least because of the comprehensive public transport links here.

But we also found that people working here are way above the national average in using bikes to replace cars for short trips such as shopping, commuting, or meeting friends. We’re certainly not anti-car – we’re all for using them sensibly, and replacing trips made by them by walking, public transport and, of course, cycling, where practical.

To our knowledge, that’s the view of pretty much all staffers and contributors , but it won’t have escaped your notice that a large part of the media – the one obsessed with pushing back on what it terms a ‘woke’ agenda – latches onto any effort to encourage people to drive less, or promote other ways of getting around, especially for short trips, as somehow being an attack on the ‘rights’ of motorists.

There's a growing school of thought that suggests such rhetoric has real-world consequences, influencing people's attitudes and behaviour towards people who can't or don't drive. As only 2% of UK journeys are cycled according to statistics, the idea that motorists could feel like they are being penalised to suit a minority may be an unsettling thought for cyclists just trying to get around safely. 

Before addressing the issues, it's worth mentioning that we're focussing on the UK's so-called 'War on the Motorist' in this article; however, it is a sentiment we've regularly seen repeated in other countries such as the United States and Australia too. 

The ’right’ to drive

That word ‘right’ is in inverted commas for good reason. Driving a motor vehicle is something allowed under licence, with the motorist having to satisfy the authorities through passing the driving test their competence to take to public roads in charge of it (and even then, there is no shortage of cases in which someone behind the wheel of a car, van or truck has chosen to drive despite being banned, or never having obtained a licence, sometimes with fatal consequences).

That is just one of the problematic issues surrounding much media coverage of attempts to encourage people to drive less – whether that be through imposing speed limits on certain roads, or restricting access to them for vehicles that pollute more, or drivers who use them as short-cuts, among other things, issues that we will be taking a closer look at in a follow-up article tomorrow.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the assumptions behind reporting of motoring issues in the UK, the arguments often used to try and reject efforts to curb car use, and some home truths – one of those a ticking time bomb that is likely to hit the headlines in the coming months.

Everyone has a car

No they don’t, although you could be forgiven for thinking that the way that media outlets including BBC News report on issues such as rises in the price of fuel, and the assumption that car ownership is pretty much universal is one that underpins much of the coverage.

Data from the 2021 Census released earlier this month reveals that around nearly one in four households in England and Wales does not have access to a car or van.

That rises to around four in ten in cities including Manchester, Liverpool and London – where, in several boroughs closer to the centre of the capital, car ownership is very much in the minority, at just one in three households.

Even in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea – which has persistently blocked safe cycle routes on its main roads – just over four in ten households have access to a car or van, while nearly six in ten do not.

The cost of motoring keeps going up

Not true. In real terms, it’s been getting cheaper compared to most other things over at least the past quarter of a century.

Last year, the Scottish Parliament’s Information Centre (SPICe), in a blog post seeking to answer the question, ‘Is there a war on the motorist?’, highlighted that between May 1999 and July 2022, the cost of motoring in Great Britain actually fell by 19 per cent when compared with inflation during the same period, as measured by the Retail Prices Index (RPI).

Sourced from the Office for National Statistics, the figures show that during the same period, rail fares have increased by 31 per cent during the same period, and bus and coach fares by a whopping 102 per cent – scant incentive for people to switch mode of transport to more sustainable ones that help reduce the amount of motor traffic on our roads.

Fuel Duty is unfair

Petrol Station copyright Simon MacMichael .jpg

Back in 1993, John Major’s Conservative government introduced the Fuel Duty Escalator, aimed at reducing pollution from vehicle emissions and the need to build new roads to cope with the forecast increase in motor traffic, initially setting it at 3 per cent above inflation annually, and later that year increasing it to 5 per cent above inflation.

After Labour’s landslide under Tony Blair in 1997, it rose to 6 per cent above inflation, and stayed there until 2000 when, following a national fuel shortage amid the rising price of oil, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown said that from then on it would only rise in line with inflation.

But once the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, George Osborne and subsequent Chancellors froze fuel duty – with one of his successors, the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, even reducing it last year.

Put another way, the 20.44 pence payable in duty on a litre of unleaded petrol from March 1989 rose steadily over the following two decades to stand at 58.95 pence per litre in early 2011 – and rather than increasing each year, as previously happened, has not risen since and following last year’s cut, is now 52.95 pence per litre.

But we pay ‘road tax’

Birmingham Mailbox and traffic (licensed CC BY-SA 2.0 by Bs)u10e01 on Wikimedia Commons)

If you look at posts concerning cyclists on social media, or on national or local newspaper websites, it won’t be long before someone raises the issue of ‘road tax’ as somehow giving people who drive motor vehicles precedence over other road users.

The problem there, of course, is that road tax itself was abolished in the 1930s, partly at the instigation of Winston Churchill, who foresaw the problems that claims of ownership of and entitlement to the highway would bring about unless drivers were swiftly dissuaded of the notion that they alone paid for the public highway.

What many motorists do pay is in fact Vehicle Excise Duty, based on emissions, with electric vehicles currently zero-rated, and even then if the car is being leased, it is the leasing company’s responsibility to pay it, not the drivers.

Instead, road building and maintenance and repair is paid for through general taxation, whether that be through income tax or council tax, and the amount of money raised through VED does not come close to meeting the bill.

In the current financial year, 2022/23, the total amount of VED paid is expected to be £7.2 billion across the UK according to government spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility – compared to an estimated £12 billion spent annually by central government and local councils in England alone.

Much of that will go on towards a few dozen road enhancement schemes on motorways and major A routes, such as junction overhauls and road widening to create an extra lane to ease congestion – even though it is well documented that doing so encourages what is known as ‘induced demand’ with the extra capacity created encouraging more drivers to take to those roads, often replacing journeys they may previously have made by public transport.

And what that means in practice is that the tens or even hundreds of millions of pounds spend to widen such roads swiftly results in the kind of traffic jam that prompted the investment in the first place – except now, with even more drivers sitting frustrated in their cars, though with barely a thought that they might be contributing to that congestion in the first place.

There are already too many motor vehicles on the road …

Cars on the A4 at Brentford (copyright Simon MacMichael).JPG

The simple fact is, there are too many motor vehicles on the road. According to data released by the Society for Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) last year, there were 40.5 million vehicles in the UK in 2021 – 4.7 million more than there had been in 2012, an increase of 13.3 per cent.

In 2021, 35 million of those vehicles were cars, a slight fall (0.2 per cent) on the previous year, which had also experienced a slight dip – the first consecutive annual decrease in car ownership in more than a century, according to the SMMT, which attributed the fall to component shortages and supply chain issues due to the pandemic.

However, 2021 saw an increase of 4.3 per cent in the number of light commercial vehicles on the road, with 4.8 million now in circulation – a rise fuelled in large part by consumer purchases moving online.

… and their number is forecast to rise

That two-year dip in the incessant rise in car ownership was also partly due to people deferring new car purchases as a result of the uncertainties caused by the pandemic – although in its latest quarterly forecast, published towards the end of last year, the SMMT is expecting the number of new car registrations next year, 2024, to be 18 per cent higher than they were in 2021.

Part Two will look at steps being taken to curb car use and make it easier for people to choose alternative options such as active travel – as well as the reception they have received, including addressing some of the misconceptions and at times outright misinformation put forward by opponents of such initiatives.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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