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‘The War on the Motorist’ Part 2 — Encouraging people to drive less and consider alternative transport

In this deconstruction of what has been coined as a 'war' on the motorist (there isn't one), we look at efforts to reduce car use and some of the reactions to them

In the second of our articles aimed at deconstructing the so-called War on the Motorist, we examine current and potential future initiatives aimed at encouraging people to rethink their use of cars for non-essential journeys, plus the kickback that such interventions are increasingly attracting, as well as some of the wider legal issues surrounding motor vehicles.

As we highlighted in our previous article, among the widespread fallacies regularly deployed by parts of the media regarding motoring in the UK is the impression that everyone drives and has access to a car, plus the myths of ‘road tax’ and the ‘right’ to drive. The truth is that there are simply too many motor vehicles on the country’s roads – and their number is forecast to rise further still – so policy makers are actively looking for ways to reduce unnecessary car journeys. 

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

The War On The Motorist May 2023 - 2

One of the tools the government used to try and reduce car dependency was the Fuel Duty Escalator. While fuel duty rose above the rate of inflation annually, this was frozen under George Osborne and more recently cut when Rishi Sunak was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Recent years have seen both local and national government turn to other means to try and encourage people to use motor vehicles less. 

Those include encouraging cycling, walking and using public transport, as well as reducing their impact on residential areas, for example through the implementation of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs). Both of these gained added impetus in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, and both were championed by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson; although the optimism that greeted the establishment of Active Travel England early in 2022 has been tempered by the recent cuts to the active travel budget.

Are we creatures of habit when it comes to driving? 

But as Dr Ian Walker, environmental psychology professor at the University of Surrey, explained when he appeared on the Podcast last year, a major problem in getting people to drive less and choose walking or cycling for shorter trips is that human beings are, fundamentally, creatures of habit.

> The Podcast – Why aren't more people cycling and walking when fuel prices are at record highs?

“Simply asking people to do new things, doesn't work very well,” he said, citing examples of health messaging. “You know, if you just say to people have you considered being healthier, have you considered eating more fruit and veg, it just doesn't work.”

Habits, he said, impede changes in behaviour, meaning that government campaigns such as the one urging people to switch to cycling for their journeys where possible are, on the whole, doomed to failure.

“Whether it's people or whether it's the physical environment or even the legal system, they all make some things easy and they all make some things hard and at the moment, unfortunately, most of the time people, physical, environment, legal, environment, media, they all make driving very easy and they all make not driving quite hard,” he added.

The habit of driving, as Dr Walker puts it, often spills over into dependency. Many people who use private cars to get around are opposed to measures which they perceive as threatening their freedom to drive where they like, and when they like.

Voters back LTNs despite noisy opponents

Stoke Newington LTN (Hackney Council)

And while only a small but vocal minority may actively take part in demonstrations against LTNs, or the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone, for instance, social media plus media coverage enables their voices to be amplified.

One such demonstration, featured in an episode of the BBC current affairs programme Panorama, highlighted how a demonstration in Oxford brought together not just local residents with genuine concerns about the impact that planned restrictions on driving around the city would have on them, but also conspiracy theorists claiming that the concept of the 15-minute city formed part of some plot by the global elite to subjugate the masses.

> More experts, fewer conspiracy theorists on active travel TV shows please

Of course, that’s absolute tosh, and is a reflection that many of the arguments deployed by would-be culture warriors against efforts by local authorities to make it easier for people to choose active travel options or public transport instead of travelling by car do not stand up to close scrutiny.

LTNs are a classic example here in this regard – far from being inaccessible to all drivers, including people who live in the area concerned, it’s simply that through traffic is excluded, to counter the pollution and danger posed by rat-running drivers who in recent years have increasingly being relying on sat-nav apps that can route them, in real time, away from congestion on main roads and onto residential streets so they can take short cuts.

In January, for example, BBC News incorrectly claimed that Hackney Council, where half of its streets are already within LTNs, planned to ban cars from three quarters of the borough’s roads. That misleading headline apart, it’s worth pointing out that Hackney has some of the lowest levels of access to cars or vans in the country, at just one in three households – a point underlined by the council, yet almost always ignored by opponents of LTNs and similar interventions, who seem to believe that everyone has a car.

Where LTNs have been introduced, they have proven popular with the people who live there. Research last year from the University of Westminster found that in London, levels of traffic within them had reduced by 50 per cent, and there was minimal displacement of vehicle movements onto surrounding roads, a common criticism raised by opponents.

> Levels of motor traffic nearly halved within London LTNs, new study finds

It’s a similar story with some of the reporting of the forthcoming expansion of the London’s ULEZ.

Already expanded in 2021 to encompass the area within the North and South Circular Roads, from August this year the ULEZ will cover the entire Greater London Area, with drivers of vehicles that do not meet minimum emissions standards liable to a £12.50 charge to enter the capital.

Data released by City Hall in December 2021 showed that since the expanded ULEZ came into operation two months earlier, 92 per cent of vehicles entering it were in fact compliant with those minimum standards – and not therefore subject to the charge.

Yet despite that, and despite the consultations that have been held on the issue, there has been a lot of kickback on the planned expansion of the zone later this year – not helped by the fact that press coverage, and therefore wider public understanding of the issue, does not tend to mention the fact that the charge only applies to older, more polluting vehicles until near the end of the articles, if at all. This leads some to assume that it applies to everyone wanting to take a car into Greater London.

As with LTNs, there’s a widespread suspicion among supporters that many opposed to the expansion of ULEZ live outside the area concerned – so in this case, motorists from outside London who believe they will be charged for entering the zone, although in practice that would only apply to the small percentage of those with older vehicles that do not meet the emissions thresholds for exemption.

Indeed, one thing that this week’s local election results demonstrate is that where a party stands on what is, in effect, a single issue campaign against interventions such as LTNs, as the Conservatives did in Bath & North East Somerset, voters reject it. The party was near-routed on the district council, losing eight councillors.

The letter of the law

Turning to legal issues regarding motoring; despite the fact that to secure a driving licence nowadays people have to pass both a theory and a practical test, there is still widespread ignorance of laws surrounding driving, and in some cases (such as speeding or using a handheld mobile device) many drivers view such offences as fairly trivial despite the potentially fatal consequences of driving above the speed limit, or being distracted by text messages or online chats.

The situation was not helped by a lot of coverage in the media of the changes to the Highway Code introduced in January last year and designed to improve the protection of people on bikes and on foot, among others. Much of this coverage was misleading and in some cases, plain wrong.

Recently, a poll found that despite 15 months having passed after those changes came into effect, more than half of motorists are still confused by concepts found within the updated Highway Code, such as the hierarchy of road users, aimed at protecting the most vulnerable (who could also be car or van occupants themselves, when sharing the road with a larger vehicle such as a lorry or bus).

> Over half of UK drivers still confused by Highway Code change, shows survey

And even before the changes were made to the Highway Code last year, surveys consistently showed that many motorists who would have had to study it to secure their driving licence in the first place will have forgotten much of what they have learnt over the years. This would appear to support the case for mandatory periodic testing of drivers, particularly older ones, an issue that has been raised in the past by the charity Cycling UK among others.

The ignorance among many of road traffic legislation as it currently stands goes hand-in-hand with the widespread misconception that many motoring-related offences don’t really constituting breaking the law at all.

At its most basic, this could be parking on the pavement, or in front of someone else’s driveway, through enforcement of 20mph speed limits, to blocking access to roads within low-traffic neighbourhoods – the fines for all of which are too often portrayed as somehow being unfair on the motorists found breaking those rules. Regularly such fines are described in the media as ‘cash cow’ money-raisers for local authorities.

Even illegally using a handheld mobile phone at the wheel – which, along with careless driving, not wearing a seatbelt, speeding and driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs constitutes one of what road police units refer to as the “Fatal Five” – is commonplace, with cyclists who capture footage of drivers using one often subjected to abuse on social media.

> Should dealing with third-party camera reports from cyclists be outsourced?

Criminal behaviour related to motoring isn’t restricted to actions undertaken behind the steering wheel either – as witnessed by the widespread vandalism of planters and bollards used to mark out LTNs, as well as the CCTV cameras used to enforce them.

The car finance time-bomb

While not an intervention by government, one thing that could lead to people having to rethink their use of private motor vehicles is a widely predicted crisis in the car finance market.

Something that doesn’t seem to have entered the general consciousness yet (although you may see it reported in the financial pages of newspapers) is that the cost of running a car that has not been bought outright is set to become much more expensive – perhaps even putting driving out of reach for many.

You may remember that it was defaults on unaffordable sub-prime mortgage debt in the United States that precipitated the 2008/09 financial crisis that sparked the global recession 15 years ago. Well, strap in with your seatbelt, because predictions are that the car finance market is heading the same way.

As UK website The Car Expert puts it, “The car industry is entirely reliant on customers buying cars they don’t need with money they don’t have. If we only bought the cars we could afford with the savings we had available, there wouldn’t be a massive global automotive industry and cars would remain playthings for the very wealthy.”

With interest rates now heading upwards, the cost of financing a car purchase is therefore set to get much more expensive – and combined with the cost-of-living crisis may well have a more profound effect on getting people to reconsider whether they actually need a car at all.

As a result, the stark financial choices that consumers may be forced to make, especially should the availability of car finance dry up, could well turn out to be the stick that gets them to change their travel habits; but it does come with an important caveat.

That caveat is that investment has to be made in walking and cycling infrastructure, as well as reasonably priced public transport to ensure these are attractive options – something that in England – outside London at least – will be more difficult to achieve in the short term, given the recent cuts made to the active travel budget.

More sticks, fewer carrots?

To wrap up, we should reiterate the point made in our earlier article on this topic that while is of course a cycling-focused website, most of our staff members and contributors are drivers. At the same time, we are all cyclists, and one thing we have never shied away from is addressing wider issues related to transport, whether that be road safety, or initiatives aimed at bringing about changes in the way we travel.

That includes reporting on the opposition that those often receive and discussing the grounds – or all too often, lack thereof – put forward in support of those efforts to push back on such plans. This is something that is often ignored, or even misrepresented, in the media, which at times presents its coverage as part of that perceived ‘War on the Motorist’.

The War On The Motorist May 2023 - 1

Why is that important? Well, not only is it important to report such issues accurately, but the sense of entitlement that such media coverage often engenders among some motorists can also result in harmful consequences for more vulnerable road users, including cyclists and pedestrians.

And returning to the point we made in our previous article, and which we have alluded to here, it is an inescapable fact that right now, there are too many cars on Britain’s roads; if people won’t voluntarily change their driving habits, it seems inevitable that sticks, rather than carrots, will be needed to encourage them to do so.

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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NickSprink | 1 year ago
1 like

I fully support everyone re-taking their driving test regularly (I am a driver). 

It always struck me as odd that the cause of most collisions can be traced back to a driver, yet it is the vehicle that has to have an MOT each year to make sure it is safe for the roads.

hawkinspeter replied to NickSprink | 1 year ago
1 like

NickSprink wrote:

I fully support everyone re-taking their driving test regularly (I am a driver). 

It always struck me as odd that the cause of most collisions can be traced back to a driver, yet it is the vehicle that has to have an MOT each year to make sure it is safe for the roads.

Maybe there should be a simple driver test added to the MOT. Something simple like an eye-test chart and maybe a reaction test by throwing someone an apple and see if they catch it.

BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 1 year ago

Infrastructure including LTNs are the answer.  They do make a difference - from what I can see.  (As I have mentioned before) I live in Paris and London. Both have very good cycle infrastructure though in Paris it is more contiguous and wide spread. In London it is concentrated in the centre (except Westminster) and only a few outer boroughs have any at all. 
Both cities have lots of cyclists - but still not enough,  as cars dominate the cityscape. Crucially both cities have decent public transport. Parking is difficult in both cities - as it should be. Because cars are private vehicles and therefore leaving them on the public highway should come at some cost. In some parts of London and Paris entire boroughs / areas are CPZs. 

marmotte27 replied to BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 1 year ago

"Both have very good cycle infrastructure"
No they don't. Not even Amsterdam has "very good" cycling infrastructure. Utrecht has very good cycling infrastructure.

Mungecrundle | 1 year ago

Just a small piece of anecdotal observation from a recent trip to Gran Canaria of traffic in the town of Maspalomas. Drivers were markedly cautious around cyclists and pedestrians. There were no traffic lights, no controlled crossings just basic zebras, parking anywhere seemed to be OK even near the crossings and on roundabouts! There were kids on e-scooters mixing with traffic. Bicycles and e-bikes everywhere (and being ridden with care in shared pedestrian spaces) 30 and 20kmh speed limits seemed to be generally well observed.

Now, I don't know what the stats are like, maybe they are horrific, maybe it is a different story in high season, but everyone seemed to rub along together just fine with free flowing traffic and an exceedingly relaxed experience from my point of view. I even rented a car for a few days as well as using local buses.

Why did this all work so well? It wasn't abundant infrastructure, noticeably zealous policing or draconian restrictions, it just seemed to work as the density of cars on the road is significantly less than the UK leading to far less driver stress fighting for road space.

So ironically, persuading motorists to use their cars more sparingly not only makes the public highway a nicer place for all road users but would be the single most effective method of making specifically the driving experience better. That isn't war, it's best self interest.

Geoff Ingram replied to Mungecrundle | 1 year ago
1 like

Very good points. I am sure driver density is one of the keys. Over the last 10 years an average of 22 deaths per year in Spanish urban roads. Moreover, where I live traffic is so slow in the town centre that you rarely delay a car, there are good segregated bike lanes, (along with a few painted lines, but at least these last are near the pavement next to bus/taxi lane -with enough space for a bus to safely pass). And high population density means the city is compact, reducing travel times. But above all, there is no media stoking of conflict. Metro and buses are free for under 30's and local trains are free for everybody to promote public transport, hence reducing driver density. Low emission zones and restricted parking are also proceeding nicely.

Ride On replied to Geoff Ingram | 1 year ago

I would love to use the train more if it wasnt so prohibitively expensive and engaged better with cycling.

This is.not something the "market" can solve. It needs political will to create an environment where the UKs travel culture can change.

Rich_cb replied to Ride On | 1 year ago

That is exactly the sort of problem that the market can solve.

In the EU (I'm a big fan) they have introduced competition to the railways on certain routes, service frequency and customer satisfaction have risen whilst prices have fallen.

The free(ish) market at work!

Hirsute replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago

We had that in East Anglia. It didn't last long.

Awavey replied to Hirsute | 1 year ago

most of the people were happy with Anglia & FGE setup at the time, even if the trains were flippin unreliable, I think it was a lack of big bucks deals for the DfT which led to the reorg of the franchises into the single entity to cover the whole region.

but there are still I think competing franchises on some parts of the UK rail network

Rich_cb replied to Awavey | 1 year ago

The best performing companies are those operating on the 'open access' program. One is proposed for the South Wales to London route so I'm hopeful it will improve things.

That should be the default model from now on.

HarrogateSpa replied to Rich_cb | 1 year ago

Meanwhile TransPennine Express has just been taken over by the government.

Must be because competition was working too well. Hoorah for the market!

TheBillder replied to HarrogateSpa | 1 year ago

I recently took a TPE train from Manchester to York on a Sunday. 200 people on platform in Manchester, 3 carriage train at platform, 10 mins to departure, doors locked, engine belching diesel fumes, bored looking guard / conductor/ steward / customer services executive sitting on train doing SFA.

He opened the doors at exactly the departure time. Cue mad scrum for seats. We had reservations but not for particular seats. Oxymoron.

Once on board, I noticed that the screens in the carriage spend a lot of time showing extracts from the terms and conditions of carriage, in particular that if you have a ticket from any other operator or for any other time, you shouldn't be on the train.

I'd like to thank market forces for being that good, and for the return fare from Edinburgh to Manchester being a very reasonable £172. And then my nose will be very long indeed.

hawkinspeter replied to HarrogateSpa | 1 year ago

HarrogateSpa wrote:

Meanwhile TransPennine Express has just been taken over by the government.

Must be because competition was working too well. Hoorah for the market!

At least they've never pulled this kind of shenanigan:


Travellers on an intercity train in Austria were startled on Sunday when a recording of an Adolf Hitler speech was played on board.

Instead of the normal announcements, a crowd could also be heard shouting "Heil Hitler" and "Sieg Heil" over the train's speaker system.

chrisonabike replied to HarrogateSpa | 1 year ago
1 like

HarrogateSpa wrote:

Meanwhile TransPennine Express has just been taken over by the government.

Must be because competition was working too well. Hoorah for the market!

No, clearly the market wasn't free enough!  If only the government wouldn't meddle and tie down businesses with pettifogging regulations...

To be fair very often the authorities are indeed spoiling the theoretical "free market".  If it's not simply to bias things in favour of their pals then it's for some reason of party dogma.  Having said that it's depressing watching repeated cycles of "light touch regulation" followed by us discovering that allowing big companies to write their own rules (e.g. none) doesn't lead to great outcomes.

Rich_cb replied to HarrogateSpa | 1 year ago

A lot of the rail privatisation in the UK didn't actually deliver any competition.

That's why it failed.

For example there is only one provider between Swansea and London direct.

Monopolies are always terrible for customers.

Right now rail passenger numbers are still down considerably on pre pandemic trends and the rail unions are being as intransigent as ever. Not really a surprise companies are going bust.

That doesn't change the fact that competition is the best way to improve the service.

zeeridesbikes replied to Ride On | 1 year ago

This is such a good point. I'm going from Cheshire to up to Scotland this week to ride around the islands. I'll be driving up to Glasgow because otherwise I'd have to take 3 trains, pay close to £200 and have to risk hanging my 'best bike' from a hook in a cupboard which might already be occupied. 

Brauchsel replied to zeeridesbikes | 1 year ago

I take your point on the inconvenience and risk, but what will the overall cost of driving that journey be? I kind of feel that if it isn't around the £200 mark then fuel is too cheap. 

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