Vehicles for a small island – an essay

November 5th, 2009 by Gerald

How could we possibly live without the car? It is completely irrational to think that we can or would wish to operate as a modern society without the car as it is just too convenient and versatile. However, this doesn’t mean we cannot contemplate altering our attitude toward and acceptance of car use as we have our part to play in addressing the environmental catastrophe that threatens us and many other species on this planet. These magical mechanical masterpieces are costing the planet dear because of their thirst for fossil fuel and their emissions to the atmosphere, so at some point soon we will collectively have to decide how best to manage personal transport for the foreseeable future.

This little island, with its narrow roads, short journey distances and speed restrictions, is ideal for an environmentally effective transport policy that sees as many journeys as possible taken by alternatives to the car. It is also an idyll for small, fuel-efficient cars that actually fit the roads. While there are many such vehicles, there are also as many large, four-wheel-drive fuel guzzlers or smaller high performance racers better suited to the autobahns of Germany.

Freedom of choice is something we rightly cherish and restriction of choice something we struggle to tolerate. However, when deciding how to address something as serious as environmental collapse, there comes the point when individual freedom of choice has to give way to the collective good. We on this island cannot assume that we are exempt from making hard choices on what we will tolerate and what we will not tolerate when it comes to how much each individual is entitled to pollute. This cannot be limited to car use and should encompass home energy consumption, travel and mechanical toys, such as motorboats. It’s all very well for wealthy people making much of their cycling and use of fuel-efficient cars while at the same time heating a large house, traveling by air frequently and whizzing around in a fast motor cruiser at weekends. However, our use of the car contributes a third of our CO2 output, so it is something to focus on and will provide the greatest benefit.

At the start of the BBC’s production of the Apprentice, we see Alan Sugar in his helicopter, his jet, his Bentley and on his very large motor cruiser and this is what very rich people do. Our western world is driven to a large extent by aspiration. Aspiration to earn more so a bigger, faster car can be bought, a plane for personal travel, a motor yacht, houses in different parts of the world to give somewhere for the plane to go to. Because Alan Sugar is an icon, shouldn’t he lead us away from this image into a more environmentally conscious way of living?

Why not replace the motor cruiser with a yacht and the Bentley with a hybrid or an electric car? Why not make a virtue out of leading the change into more sustainable forms of transport? While he and others like him may remain sizable CO2 contributors, their opportunity to contribute to big reductions is much greater than most. Getting Lord Sugar from 30 tonnes a year to 20 would be a great success and should be applauded.

At the moment, too many people’s environmental awareness and concern is focused on the exhaust pipe of the car in front and it is conveniently forgotten that something nasty is coming from ones own. If we take collective responsibility toward our environment, we should agree that it is a good thing to reduce emissions each year by an agreed target. This means we all make an effort to change our habits and none of us has the inalienable right to pump more CO2 out just because we have more money and can afford to do so.

Let’s say we agree a collective target of reducing current car emissions by 20% within five years. To achieve this, we should encourage as many as possible to bus, walk and cycle whenever it makes sense to do so. Rather than pillory cyclists for clogging up our roads, we should applaud them as they are making a significant contribution to reducing emissions by selflessly forcing tired legs to propel them uphill. The more people we can get out of cars on a regular basis, the greater chance we have of reaching our goal.

Part of the problem with cycling is to do with safety. On an island as small as Guernsey, journey times by bicycle are short and so long as one is reasonably fit, not too arduous. In many respects it is an ideal location for cycling and if adopted by many more than at present, would become a very significant contributor to reducing island emissions. Cyclists need more routes dedicated to them and if this were possible, one would expect a sharp increase in those choosing this way to travel. An example of how this might be achieved is Victoria Road in St Peter Port, which is one way up the hill. At the moment cyclists do slow down cars because there is no room to overtake, unless the driver mounts the pavement (an illegal and dangerous manoeuvre). Why not let cyclists use one of the pavements? Due to low uphill speeds, this would not endanger pedestrians. In fact, why not consider generally the idea that when traveling uphill, cyclists can use pavements but on the condition that pedestrians always have priority?

But it is not just a matter of some of us using the car less. Those who do use a car have to be encouraged to use one that is much less polluting and much more fuel-efficient. Reintroduce tax for cars that expel more than 140gms/kilometre of CO2 and as they get higher up the scale make it greatly more expensive. Introduce charging for parking both in public spaces and in office car parks but give exemption to those cars that pollute less. Increase the tariff on fuel to encourage people out of cars that consume large amounts of it.

Cars today have an extended shelf life so anything bought new will probably still be on our roads in 20 years’ time. A large fuel guzzler will continue to guzzle unless we prevent it being purchased in the first place and this is where tough financial penalties need to be introduced. Older cars tend to be much less fuel-efficient, don’t have catalysts and tend to pollute more but without an annual MOT will remain on our roads for too long. Action should be taken to ease these cars off our roads much earlier.

We have a Guernsey car-free day on the last Friday each month and we hope that on this one day as many people as possible will try and use an alternative to the car. Look on it as an experiment to see whether you can, on occasion, change your transport habits and make some contribution to a more general change of attitude.

The electric car is much talked about but as yet has made little impression for a number of reasons, of which two are of critical importance. One is price and the other is range. Until the electric car becomes affordable with commensurate space and comfort it will not be bought and it’s no good expecting environmentally conscientious people to drive around in a converted milk float. We will have to subsidise the cost of these cars and that subsidy will need to be paid by those who choose not to drive electric cars, in increasing bands linked to the environmental impact their cars have.

On the topic of range, this presents less of a problem here in Guernsey than it might do on the mainland. Journey distances are short and the need for away-from-home recharging minimal to zero. However, people do use their cars both in France and the UK, so range can become an issue. There is an option to hire a car when travelling abroad or possibly in a two-car family having one electric and one fuel, with the electric one the default option for local travel. When Guernsey begins harnessing large quantities of renewable energy, the electric car becomes an extremely attractive transport option.

In summary, the objective should not necessarily be to reduce the number of vehicles each family can or should have but to substantially change the type of vehicle used and to encourage as much as possible the use of alternative means of transport such as the bicycle, the bus and indeed the feet, when practical.

Why not use the monthly car-free day that happens on the last Friday of each month to try an alternative to the car? An opportunity to start changing your habits.


Managing director,

State Street

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