Op-Ed: Why, if driving is an addiction, we aren’t calling for it to be treated like other addictions.

Not everybody loves Car Free Days equally

                                         Not everybody loves Car Free Days equally

Simon Norton comments on “Thursday”: A breakthrough strategy for reducing car dependence in cities

At present, in most industrialised countries, tobacco and alcohol are highly taxed, and other addictive drugs totally prohibited by law. By contrast petrol is sold at a price that is cheaper than bottled water (at least from some outlets). While the value of the “prohibition” policy for drugs may be reduced by enforcement problems, it is difficult to see how people could drive without the authorities becoming aware of it.

One should also ask whether driving is an individual or a societal addiction.

The difference is that with the former individuals who decided to give up (or at least reduce) their driving would gain individual benefit, but with the latter the principal benefit accruing to them would come from other people giving up driving. The answer is almost certainly a bit of both, but it is fair to ask whether, if people behaved in a rationally selfish manner, traffic would reduce by enough to make a significant difference.

If not, then, short of total or partial prohibition, we won’t get anywhere unless we manage to
internalise the costs which drivers inflict on society by enough so that it does become rational for individual motorists to give up their cars.

Meanwhile there are some “soft” measures that would help. All of these are conditional on the development of a comprehensive public transport network so that only a tiny proportion of the population do have an absolute need to drive for most of the time.

1. Raise the driving age. Why do we allow people to become driving addicts at an age when they aren’t old enough to vote or to buy alcohol or tobacco ?

2. Teach schoolchildren from the age of about 14 how to plan trips without use of a car. I
myself was hooked on the pleasures of public transport at the age of 16, though it was a
matter of pure chance which led me to teach myself how to use it. How many fewer cars would there be on the roads if every child was exposed to the benign conditioning I was ?

3. Make most new housing car-free. In the UK at least, housing provision is so short that
people will take anything they can get, including suburban sprawl with no public transport in the evenings and weekends and few other facilities. Why can’t they be offered the opportunity of living in an almost traffic free environment with public transport provision at a level not
jeopardised by abstraction of demand ? It should also be remembered that because of the land they take and the traffic they generate, amenity groups have been conditioned to oppose almost all new housing schemes and the UK government has as a result come to rig the
system more and more in favour of developers. The onus should surely be on developers to provide the kind of housing that doesn’t alienate existing residents in the area.

4. Offer fast track immigration to refugees and others who are willing to agree not to own a car.

5. Treat motoring offences seriously. Holders of driving licences should be required to sign a statement that “I agree to obey all the rules and regulations applicable to motorists and
recognise that this licence may be withdrawn if I do not do so” or words to that effect — and the last clause should have real meaning. Furthermore, I don’t know whether it is right and proper that people convicted of (possibly minor) criminal offences should be in danger of
losing their jobs, or should have difficulties getting insurance or visiting other countries, but to the extent that such problems do exist I don’t see why people convicted of motoring offences should be exempt.

I suggest that if the above policies were adopted then it wouldn’t be long before significant
levels of traffic reduction were achieved.

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About the author:

Simon Phillips Norton  is a mathematician in Cambridge, England, who works on finitesimple groups. He constructed the Harada–Norton group, and in 1979 together withJohn Conwayproved there is a connection between the Monster group and the j-function in number theory. They dubbed tsimon-nortonhis monstrous moonshine and made some conjectures later proved by Richard Borcherds. Norton was one of the authors of the ATLAS of Finite Groups. He also made several early discoveries in Conway’s Game of Life,[2] and invented the game Snort. Norton is the subject of the biography The Genius In My Basement, written by his Cambridge tenant,Alexander Masters.

Since leaving academics, Norton has become a keen observer of and commentator on public transportation, and he believes he can make it more efficient. When the Deregulation of the Buses Act came into force under Margaret Thatcher, this mundane piece of legislation caused him profound distress. Bus routes were opened to competitive tender and Simon, appalled by the destruction of what he saw as vital public transport services, found a new focus for his intellectual passion. (Source: Frances Hubbard, Daily Mail article of 10 September.)

His fascination with public transport had begun 20 years earlier when he was taking his first degree. On a visit to London University, he came across cache of London Transport publicity leaflets that triggered a devotion that has never waned. Proof of his commitment is the  £10,000 a year he provides to fund the Transport Campaigner of The Year Award. In 2008, it was won by a member of the environmental group Plane Stupid, who proceeded to superglue himself to Gordon Brown’s sleeve when he collected the prize.

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton

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