Eric Pickles and Philip Hammond have taken great delight in announcing that, since the Coalition came to power, the war on the motorist has ended. It’s a phrase that has adorned a number of policy announcements in recent months – the withdrawal of the M4 bus lane near Heathrow and now withdrawing planning guidance that restricts the number of parking places to be provided at new developments.
If ever there was a piece of tabloid inanity turned into political myth it’s the war on the motorist. The tabloid story is that the motorist has been turned into a cash cow, hard-working families in their people-carriers being fleeced by profligate NuLabour etc etc.
It’s all complete nonsense. As this piece in the Economist makes clear, for the last few years, even allowing for the increase in fuel prices (which is largely driven by speculators playing the oil market) the real cost of motoring has fallen consistently – while the cost of public transport has in real terms risen. This diagram illustrates the changes:
The point is illustrated further by a Parliamentary Answer given by then Transport Minister Sadiq Khanon 5 February 2010 to Norman Baker MP, now the Coalition’s local transport minister:
Norman Baker: To ask the Minister of State, Department for Transport what estimate he has made of the percentage change in real terms of the cost of travelling by (a) private car, (b) bus, (c) train and (d) domestic aeroplane since (i) 1980 and (ii) 1997. 
Mr. Khan: Between 1980 and 2009 the real cost of motoring, including the purchase of a vehicle, declined by 17 per cent., bus and coach fares increased by 54 per cent. and rail fares increased by 50 per cent. in real terms. These figures are based on the transport components of the Retail Prices Index.
Between 1997 and 2009 the real cost of motoring, including the purchase of a vehicle, declined by 14 per cent., bus and coach fares increased by 24 per cent. and rail fares increased by 13 per cent. in real terms.
The costs of travelling by air are not available from the Retail Prices Index. However, the cost of the average UK one-way air fare, including taxes and charges, covering domestic flights fell by 35 per cent. between 1997 and 2008, the latest date for which figures are available.
It’s clear; the war against motorist is a tabloid fabrication, one that Coalition Ministers are happy to use in order to demonise their predecessors. And this is before taking into account such factors as safety, noise, air pollution, health and community severance.
The privatisation of public space
But this fake war does mask a real and insidious conflict – about public space and what it’s for.
The clue comes in an announcement earlier this year that the Coalition would clamp down on what it regards as unnecessary street signs, bollards and other objects which they claim are destroying the character of English towns. The Government press notice contained a phrase that is an obvious invitation to ridicule: bossy bollards. At one level it’s an absurdity, a silly phrase dreamed up by a spin doctor, an invitation to ridicule.
But, as so often, it’s those little phrases, apparently so meaningless on the surface, that reveal the ideology beneath.
Bollards are about where you can take your car – keeping you out of a pedestrianised street, stopping you from parking on the pavement, or slowing traffic outside a primary school.
In other words, they’re on the boundary between different spaces where different rules apply – the space occupied by the individual, closed off from communal life in his car, behaving according to one set of rules, and the public space of the street where those who do not have vehicles interact, according to another. The bollard is where the individual confronts society, and tells him that his individual space as a driver has a boundary. It constrains his privilege, and arbitrates between different road users, ensuring the more vulnerable are protected.
And that’s the front line of the real conflict – are our urban streets private or public territory? Are they just there for the car, or are they places where the public can come and go freely? What about the third of the population who do not have access to a car? What about the inappropriate use of 4×4 vehicles, whose impact Norman Baker so eloquently described in his days in opposition?
When the coalition talks about ending the war on the motorist, it really means something completely different. It means that cars and their users will continue to enjoy privileged rights on our streets, at the expense of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. It is part of a dystopian vision in which families are wafted from home to mall to school to work in their closed environments, free to pollute, to speed, to divide communities, with the rest of us left to exercise the freedom to get out of their way.