money is not the thing being measured but the instrument with which we measure it


Car Sick

Originally published in January 2016

Last week BBC Scotland showed a half hour programme introduced by David Miller called Car Sick. It looked at how, despite the rhetoric on climate change and sustainable living, people in Scotland are relying on the car more than ever.

Yet Scotland, like the rest of the UK, is increasing its spending on road transport. The largest road building programme since the 1970’s is underway across the UK, whilst public transport faces huge cuts. There is however no evidence that this money will improve our lives. In fact the evidence suggests it will do the opposite whilst costing us a lot more.

Air pollution is only one of five main categories through which we pay for road transport

Car Sick highlighted Air Pollution from exhausts and the cost to the health services from inactivity (£600 million in Scotland) as the main impacts of our car addiction. Using data from TRACCSEMEP/EEA and a report by Ricardo-AEA, Wattsthecost estimates exhaust air pollution from road transport costs the UK £1.5 billion per year and Non-exhaust emissions around £1 billion (figure 1). The RAC and Defra put these costs at between £4.5 and 10.6 billion. Yet Air Pollution is only one of five main categories through which we pay for road transport, not including climate change.

Breakdown of pollution costs in the UK
Figure 1 – Breakdown of air pollution costs in the UK

Figure 2 below shows estimates for external costs of congestionaccidentsinfrastructure and noise from different vehicles. These figures are huge underestimates when compared to the UK governments own statistics, which put the annual accident cost at £16.3 billion – 11% higher than the previous year and noise at up to £10 billion. Whilst these figures are varied and estimated, there is no doubt there are a huge range of hidden costs that we fork out for every day, simply because there is no convenient alternative.

TRACCS estimates car owners in the UK are paying an average of £2300 a year to run a car. The Wattsthecost external cost estimations shown above amounts to each person paying £4000 a year of our taxes essentially subsidising the problems they cause. The average income tax contributions are a little over this at £5000. People Baulk at the cost of annual travel cards in London, which in 2016 range from £972 to just over £4000. Yet London is one of the few cities in the UK with reliable public transport alternatives. In most, an amount equivalent to the upper fare range is coming out of the governments, businesses and our own pockets in funding lower property prices, increased hospital admissions and time lost in gridlock, because driving is seen as the only option.

Car Sick interviewed Klaus Bondam, mayor of Copenhagen from 2006 to 2010 (who in 2012 featured in the short film Brussels Express, discussing Europe’ then most congested city: Brussels (knocked off the top in 2014 by London)). He highlights that Copenhagen cannot afford not to invest in public transport and cycling, and points out one of main factors in Copenhagen’s rejection of the car is the absence of a Danish car industry and the powerful lobbying forces that entails.

Having spent 5 years living in Vienna, I can also attest to the benefits of living without a car. Despite paying around double the income tax I would on the same income in the UK, an annual transport pass costs a measly €366 a year (€365 for the bus, underground, overground train and tram network and €1 for the comprehensive city bike scheme). This enabled me to easily travel to and from work, home from a night out, to the shops and to training in the evening. The city authorities no doubt have a huge subsidy bill, but businesses who need the roads can do their jobs efficiently, the road repair bill is lower with fewer cars fatiguing the surfaces meaning less tarmac going to landfill and overall less casualties to deal with.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we are essentially all paying a fortune to trip over parked cars, listen to incessant traffic noise, worry if our car has been broken into, if the meter has run out or when the next massive repair bill will be due and waste hours of our week sitting in traffic and driving around finding parking spaces, but are absolutely adamant that this is the best and only option.

External transport
Figure 2 – Cost estimates for Congestion, Accidents, Infrastructure and Noise taken from INRIX, TRACCS, EMEP and Ricardo-AEA.


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