Time to plan for urban life without cars? Societies addicted to cars

THE Volkswagen emmissions scandal underlined how ubiquitous the car is. It underlined how societies, this one included, depend on cars to function.

It emphasised the central significance of the car industry and how, like it or not, the stability of the eurozone is shackled to Germany’s premier industry, an industry that employs one in six Germans.

This car addiction comes with a huge cost. The AA reckons it costs more than €10,000 a year to run a family car. For many young families, especially those banished to dormitory towns during the last housing bubble, that figure is doubled as they are obliged to run two cars. For some older, pension-dependent people, running a car consumes a disproportionate percentage of income. Those living in rural Ireland, where public transport can be as scarce as a swallow at this time of the year, a car is an essential but heavy tax on living.

Volkswagen says around 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide -- including more than 110,000 vehicles in Ireland -- will need to go back to garages for a “refit” in the coming year.
Volkswagen says around 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide -- including more than 110,000 vehicles in Ireland -- will need to go back to garages for a “refit” in the coming year.

The suggestion earlier this week from Renua that we should drop motor tax because it is costly to administer and police deserves real consideration. Instead the party would put a levy on fuel — the more you use the more your pay. This seems entirely rational and, to use an agrument advanced by Government to support Irish Water, it would promote conservation and reduce our dependence on imported fuel. It would also remove the inequity of low-milage drivers subsidising high-milage drivers and help streamline the public sector.

Cars also comes at a huge environmental cost — the pressing issue that drove the VW fraud. In urban and suburban settings a car is sometimes as much an instrument of torture as a convience with commuters bookending working days with journeys that, over the working year, stretch to weeks rather than days. London and Paris are considering bans on diesel cars, a process probably made urgent by VW cheating.

There is no sign that our love affair with cars is waning indeed the very opposite is the case. Figures from the Society of the Irish Motor Industry (SIMI) show that car sales for July were up 48% (27,633) compared to (18,711) in July 2014 and were up 30% (109,960) for the first half of 2015. So far this year car sales are up by just over 25%. These figures are good news for the car sector and for the exchequer as, according to the SIMI, it has collected €761m from new and used car sales this year. This represents 3.7% of the year’s tax take to date. The full figure, when the Vat on car insurance, fuel, maintenance and road tax are factored in is much higher. Not only is the car a necessity in so many lives it is a gift that keeps on giving for tax collectors. It would be silly to imagine that this unending income stream is not a factor in transport policy and our less than enthusiastic support for public transport. Why would a government work hard to promote and develop heavily-subsidised public transport when, if it becomes a success, the reward is a reduction in taxes generated by cars?

In an ever more globalised world the sustainability of private car ownership in an urban setting will come more and more into question. That suggests we have to be far more radical in how we plan our towns and cities if they’re are not to become even more congested, expensive, unpleasant, and environmentally destructive.

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