The government, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Transport Secretary Mark Harper, have announced a new “Plan for Drivers” at the Conservative Party conference. A series of media exclusives, leaks and off record briefings prior to the conference laid out the key points and made the clear case that the PM was “slamming the brakes on anti-motorist measures”, leaving climate and active travel organisations as well as the professor at the Sorbonne who coined the term ’15 minute cities’, aghast at the approach being taken.
Harper scrambled post-official release to clarify the new “plan” stood alongside “continued record investment in public transport and active travel”. But the mood music is clear as has been the reaction – this is not just a plan for driving, it’s a plan for more and faster driving. And as such, it is a plan for rising emissions, road danger and more.
Before we cover the policy detail, it is worth understanding the language being used and concepts being pushed – and exactly how far into conspiracy and ‘culture wars’ territory they veer.
Sunak’s tweet launching the report begins “We are a nation of drivers. Most of us use a car every day.” A YouGov poll shows under a fifth of adults use a car daily, and even if only applying it to driver, that’s still under a quarter that drive daily in the UK. So not only are we not a nation of drivers (as Led By Donkeys’ moving new video makes clear, we’re a nation of families), most drivers don’t use their car every day.
Sunak also said “drivers feel under attack” but it’s unclear who he thinks they’re under attack from – given the Conservatives have been in power for 13 years, a point made brilliantly by BBC’s Jo Coburn to Andrea Leadsom MP, defending the government.
At its base, this is an attack on the many councils and local authorities of every political stripe choosing to reduce the amenity of car use and actively enable alternatives, particularly in urban areas. Indeed, the government has consistently provided funding to help those authorities, even encouraged them to do this. And all the data and evidence, regionally, nationally and internationally shows that ‘carrot and stick’ is what’s needed to enable mass mode shift. But now, Sunak seems set to apply the carrot to driving and the stick to everything else, because of one by-election result in Uxbridge.
Mark Harper even went so far down the rabbit hole he said of ’15 Minute Cities’: “what is sinister and what we shouldn’t tolerate is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they ration who uses the road and when, and they police it all with CCTV.” Except no one is actually doing that outside dystopian science fiction films, and this is such a common conspiracy theory, and so frequently debunked that the inventor of the phrase, Carlos Moreno, Scientific Director at the Sorbonne, said in response that the government’s rhetoric was “a baffling step back for a nation facing, like all others, the major challenges of this century, primarily the climate emergency.”
Putting aside the party politics here – and bearing in mind that Conservative metro region Mayors including ex-London Mayor Boris Johnson are often very progressive on active travel and motor transport – using conspiracies of “anti-motorist” policies as a culture war wedge issue leaves not just cycling, walking, cities, climate, pollution, road danger, children, caught in crossfire, but also drivers.
“There’s nothing wrong with driving” reads the forward of “The Plan for Drivers”. But not only is that not true, it obviously sends an entirely wrongheaded signal to the public.
There obviously are things “wrong with driving” in general and particularly ‘unnecessary’ driving where the journeys made could be done by other modes relatively easily. In London, says TfL, that’s most driven journeys. Across England, 16% of trips under 1 mile are done by car or van, for 1 to 5 miles, 67% are done by car or van. Simply, every analysis going shows a significant proportion of motor vehicle journeys, even outside cities, could relatively easily be done by other modes.
Even if we ignore the toll unnecessary driving causes, driving necessary journeys still risks causing injuries or loss of life via collisions. Even necessary journeys done by motor vehicle cause climate-changing emissions and pollution. And the latter may not dramatically lessen as we switch to electric vehicles.
There is lots of work ongoing to understand decarbonising motor vehicle transport – but the broad consensus is so far that not all motor vehicles will easily or rapidly go electric, and most assessments suggest significant cuts in driving will be needed to decarbonise, on top of switching to electric vehicles.
On top of road danger, climate and pollution, there’s also inactivity related ill-health related to car use. And then there’s community severance. And there’s congestion. Not only is there quite a lot “wrong” with driving (despite the car and motor vehicles also being very much a part of our transport mix and also bringing many benefits to our current lifestyles), what’s wrong with too much driving also impacts all drivers.
The policies underlined in the Plan for Drivers include cutting bus lane operating hours, “inappropriate blanket” use of 20 mph limits (the report specifically highlights the recent Welsh ‘default’ approach negatively) and rollout of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) that have not “secured local consent” (which is not defined).
Perhaps most impactful of all policy proposals is the aim to consult on “removal of local authorities’ access to Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) data to enforce such schemes by camera”. This would presumably remove the ability to enforce School Streets, bus lanes, bus gates, Low Traffic Neighbourhood filters, pedestrian zones and more by camera. (Of course, there’s little likelihood that this can get through consultation and be fully enacted in the remaining time for the current Parliament, and even if it can be, it would likely face huge pushback not just from urban regions, but county towns etc.)
This is, of course, a plan not just for driving – but more driving and faster driving specifically. And therefore a plan for what is known as “induced demand”. So not only will the government if they ever enact this plan or get the chance to, have a huge and negative impact on city neighbourhoods, on walking, cycling and wheeling, on climate emissions, but also the “Plan for Drivers” if enacted, will end up being bad for drivers.
The reality, the evidence, shows that 20mph zones in urban areas don’t dramatically increase journey times, but they do save lives; that congestion isn’t solved by building more roads (as the government already does far too much of), but by genuinely enabling alternatives using carrots and sticks.
This is the key issue here. Quite apart from the very real, horrific impacts on climate, safety and community that these policies risk – they won’t make driving any better – they’ll probably make driving worse. This is the classic “just one more lane” meme as government policy.
We urge the government and politicians of all hues to turn away from such an approach. This isn’t a good plan – even if it was solely constrained to the countryside it wouldn’t be a good plan. But for cities, and for people walking, cycling, wheeling, on the bus or yes, in cars, this is a terrible plan.
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