No more long drive
Saturday, 05 July 2008

By Mary Dejevsky

FOR complicated reasons, I have been doing quite a bit of long-distance driving recently. Yes, I know it is not green; it's an extravagant use of time, and now that a full tank of petrol costs upwards of (pounds sterling) 50, it makes a big hole in the bank balance. Sometimes, though, you have little choice but to take to the road.

As if to underline this point, my writing today is punctuated by the bellowing, all too close, of angry lorry horns. The haulage drivers have come to Westminster, with their clumsy steeds, to lobby MPs about fuel prices. With or without complaining lorry drivers, though, the experience of my recent journeys suggests that the price of petrol — at (pounds sterling)1.16 a litre, if you are lucky — and more for diesel, is having a noticeable effect on lifestyle. Between the various centres of population, my drives up and down the M4 have become quite lonely.

There are vast delivery lorries, yes, including some from across the Channel, and the usual quotient of long-distance coaches. But there are relatively few private cars, either on weekdays or at weekends. Car traffic picks up around the cities, but vanishes again on the open road. I noticed exactly the same driving from the south of France a month ago. People just do not seem to be driving long-distance, whether for business or pleasure, as they used to.

Now you can argue that this is an excellent development; and I would not disagree. Can it be that stratospheric fuel prices have succeeded in doing what no government or green agitator has yet managed: getting ordinary people out of their cars and, perhaps, on to public transport? If recent plans for Britain to develop its first new railways (with the exception of the Channel rail link) for a century are a guide, perhaps we can look forward to a new age of investment in public transport.

But the implications go much further than this. Unless more economical, probably non-fossil fuel, vehicles are developed soon, private cars will be something that people in rural areas reserve for local pottering and others will keep — if they can afford it — for use mostly in emergencies. Long-distance commuting by car or driving for pleasure could become a thing of the past.

On Wednesday, discussing the relatively poor performance of Marks & Spencer, its chairman, Sir Stuart Rose, mentioned the impact of high fuel prices on out-of-town shopping centres. The investment potential of such US-style malls in Britain is already much lower than it was. And those sites that the big supermarket chains have supposedly bought up to prevent a competitor moving in beside them may start to look like an expensive mistake.

The reconsideration of lifestyle as a result of high fuel costs is happening not just in Britain. In France, characteristically, state or regional authorities have stepped in, encouraging the provision of commuter shuttles to allow out-of-towners to keep their city jobs.

In the United States, some planners already envisage a future where the country is essentially turned inside out, with derelict McMansions littering the landscape, and the outer suburbs, with no public transport and worthless housing, becoming the equivalent of today's inner-city slums.

Fuel costs present city authorities everywhere with what may be a unique chance to demonstrate the financial and lifestyle benefits that can accrue from economies of scale. With imaginative planning, it should not be too fanciful to see in the energy crisis the possibility of a new golden age for the city.

— © The Independent, London

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