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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 July 2006, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
Share car, make friends, save planet
Dr Richard Ghail
Richard Ghail

In this week's Green Room, transport planner and engineer Dr Richard Ghail urges you to get out of your car, save money and the environment, and make some new friends along the way.

Traffic jam on a London road (BBC)
Attitudes have changed; only the die-hard drive to central London

Few people still argue about the reality of climate change or its causes. Nearly a third of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions come from transport, and it is the only sector in which those emissions are growing.

Take the two statements above and it becomes obvious that we must reduce our travel needs, taking the train and getting on our bicycles.

The lesson from the last eight years in London is that change can be brought about by investment priorities in public transport and penalties for driving cars. Bus services were dramatically enhanced, fares standardised and the congestion charge introduced.

Attitudes have changed; only the die-hard drive to central London.

But all that came at a price: big increases in council tax funded the transition, while for most the cost of commuting has remained high because tube and train fares were unaltered. New buses had to be paid for before the congestion charge could be applied.

Limited options

Even so, outside of London and a few other large cities, the reality for most people is the car. Whether or not people want to take the bus or train, rural services are simply inadequate.

This has been a deliberate policy for decades; maintaining a dense, high frequency rural network is simply uneconomic. The rail network has been progressively reduced while the rural road network has been improved to accept higher traffic levels and reduced transit times.

The burden of supporting what public transport remains has increasingly shifted directly to the user and away from the taxpayer; so much so that the cost of public transport has risen in real terms by more than a third over the last decade, at the same time as the cost of motoring has actually dropped, despite soaring fuel prices.

Those unable to drive, especially the young and the elderly, are simply excluded from society

The result is an unsustainable demand for the car, with all its environmental, social and economic impacts. The Treasury estimates that the cost of congestion alone is 20 billion a year and rising. Private cars produce 10% of the UK's total CO2 emissions.

Those unable to drive, especially the young and the elderly, are simply excluded from society. With more people driving and fewer walking, the streets have become dangerous places, especially at night. Shops and services have moved to out-of-town developments, leaving towns and villages deserted and what's left of the natural environment decimated.

As London's experience demonstrates, reversing these trends can be slow and expensive. But there are some surprisingly simple, cheap and effective alternatives.

More than 80% of people who commute to work by car do so on their own. Yet most live in the same towns and villages as many of their colleagues. With a little forethought all those journeys can be combined.

Two colleagues, each with a car, can alternately leave one or other car at home and get a lift with their colleague. In one fell swoop petrol costs and harmful emissions are halved, and congestion on the roads eased, reducing journey times. Even better if three or four club together.

Communal commute

Simultaneously, a subtle but positive social change occurs. Instead of fuming at the stranger in the car in front, friendships are made with colleagues in the passenger seat. In turn, workplaces improve and towns and villages become something more than commuter dormitories.

Car exhaust fumes (Getty Images)
Private cars are responsible for 10% of the UK's CO2 emissions

It sounds Utopian, but it is nothing more than the breaking down of social barriers created by sheets of metal and glass and four wheels.

The average UK commuter drives 8.5 miles (13.7 km) to work daily at a cost of 204, a cost that can be halved through car sharing. That's a saving of 240 per driver per year. With the number of cars on the road halved, congestion would be eliminated, freeing a whole day per year.

At the same time, the UK's greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by 4%. Perhaps most compellingly, it would save 309 lives per year, and prevent nearly 4,000 people from being seriously injured.

In an attempt to reduce congestion, the US has had car pool lanes for decades. Yet more than 90% still commute alone, leaving the car pool lanes empty. Why?

There's only so much governments can do, and it costs a lot of money.

Ultimately, it's up to each of us to decide. Check out a website called liftshare.org to find people who make exactly the same journey as you, everyday. Save money, save the environment, save lives.

Don't want to share your car? Then expect a very large hike in your taxes as governments try to combat the effects of climate change, congestion, and personal injuries, on your behalf.

The choice is yours.

Dr Richard Ghail is a senior transport planner/engineer for JMP Consulting.

The Green Room is a series of opinion pieces on environmental issues running weekly on the BBC News website.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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