Are there too many cars on the roads?

At the moment I'm lucky enough to be able to walk to work; it takes just over half an hour and the majority of the route takes me along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. At the moment it's teeming with fish and the journey makes for a surprisingly pleasant commute.

Walking along roads, however, it'd be tempting to guess that the same can't be said for others making a beeline to the office. Leeds, like any other urban conurbation, suffers from terrible traffic problems particularly at those peak times when everyone is rushing to or from work. Cars crawling along barely make it out of second gear, horns are honked, expletives are shouted and profanities are gestured. Generally speaking it's not an overly fun experience.

And yet I can't fail to notice that the vast majority of cars only have one occupant. It was a phenomenon I first became aware as I sped past stationary lines of traffic on my bicycle; vehicle after vehicle with only a solitary driver to keep it company. Anecdotal, perhaps, but I suspect the situation is readily replicated all over the country.

I've never really understood this addiction to the car. Granted, some people will be genuinely unable to get to the workplace using any other method, particularly in rural areas where distances are large and public transport provision patchy or unreliable. People can and do insist on living a long way from work, or - in today's world of restricted job opportunities - be unable to find employment closer to home. But does every car on the road at 8:30am or 5:30pm really need to be there? I mean, really?

Cars cause a lot of problems. Other than the aforementioned congestion they also cause thousands of deaths and serious injuries in the UK every year; they reduce air quality and can increase the rate of respiratory illnesses, particularly amongst the young; result in the destruction of countryside to make way for roads and motorways; decrease the propensity for exercise; and ensure that our oil-thirsty governments remain dependent on despotic and undemocratic regimes that constitute much of OPEC's membership. Given that the price of petrol is also a staple concern of our overwhelmingly right-wing press you'd think that those would be plenty of reasons to leave the car at home.

Yet those same people who bemoan the cost of driving seem to be the ones most reluctant to give it up. It's as if motorists have a god-given right to indulge their addiction, even as it impacts so negatively on everyone else's quality of life in a way that no other form of transport does.

It's true that our roads are in many ways essential, not just so people can get from A to B but also to boost our economy and maintain our general wellbeing. It can't be denied that the car is in many ways the most convenient and liberating to travel. What we need is a way to prise people out of their cars and encourage them to take alternatives whenever possible, particularly for journeys that are repeated on a regular basis. The commute is the most obvious of these.

Truth be told, cycling and walking aren't for everyone. At the moment the bicycle is collecting dust; my workplace is surrounded by an entrance to a motorway and simply isn't safe to get to on two wheels, another example of the prioritising of the car over all else. It's also fair to say that walking and cycling in bad weather can put most but the hardiest off even when there is adequate provision of pavement and cycleway.

Which all means that it is public transport that will have to do the most if we are ever to conquer the car - and that means making it affordable, accessible and comfortable. It'll be no easy task in this world of privatised public transport companies with their high fares, cherry picking of profitable routes, lack of cohesion between rival companies, addiction to subsidy and all the rest of it. Quantifying everything in monetary terms is not an accurate method of cost-benefit analysis.

Yet sorting out our public transport really must be a priority for any government. Our addiction to petrol simply cannot go on forever - it's a finite resource, after all - and the sooner we search for alternatives the better. If we could all just try to use our cars a little less we would all stand to benefit in so many ways...


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