Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Q: Why do people in NI make so many car journeys? A: To escape from eco-loons trying to ban the internal combustion engine of course

There's something about the car which simply can't be replaced by any other form of vehicular transport, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Beyond the traffic jams of the Westlink lies the allure of the open road
Beyond the traffic jams of the Westlink lies the allure of the open road
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

When it comes to doing one's bit for the environment most people, if they were honest, would probably echo St Augustine's famous prayer: "Lord, make me good, but not yet."

That's nowhere more true than in our attitude to cars. These days motorists are increasingly portrayed as villains, selfishly polluting the air with their carbon emissions.

More and more cities are drawing up plans to shut out motorists altogether, and campaigners are demanding an outright ban on the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2030.

The Green Party even complained recently because new Belfast Lord Mayor John Finucane didn't mention climate change in his inaugural speech.

Forget all those new power stations in China. Apparently, it's Northern Ireland's fault the planet is overheating.

There will no doubt be similar consternation from the usual suspects at new figures showing how people here remain doggedly attached to their cars.

The statistics, published by the Department for Infrastructure, reveal that 70% of all journeys during the period 2016-2018 were made by car. That represents a slight decrease on previous levels, but still high when public transport accounts for a mere 5% of journeys, well down even on walking.

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The average person here, these latest figures show, makes a paltry 47 journeys each year - fewer than one a week in other words - on public transport.

As they tear out their hair over all this petrol-guzzling naughtiness, though, the eco-warriors should be warned that they'll struggle to get a sympathetic hearing when they do come, as they inevitably will, to take away our cars.

For one thing, almost 40% of people here live in rural areas. That's around 670,000, all of whom need their cars to get around.

It's not possible to do normal, ordinary things in the country such as shopping or going to work without a car.

Bus services are infrequent and not cheap either, and however pleasant the diversions, it is a bit of a palaver to stop at every village to drop off and pick up other passengers when all you want to do is get where you're going in the shortest time.

Even if it was possible to connect the whole country by reliable, affordable public transport it still wouldn't work. There's something about the car which simply can't be replaced by any other form of transport.

Look at all the people on buses and trains, with their earphones in listening to music or watching Netflix. That's because their one wish is to be left alone in their private little worlds, and there's nowhere better for doing that than one's own car.

All the eco-loons demanding that we car-pool to work don't get it. We're going to spend all day making small talk with other people whether we like it or not. At least let us savour that brief period in the morning to ourselves in the car, being as grumpy and unsociable as we like.

Alone behind the wheel you can listen to anything you want on the radio. You can swear. You can shout - at other drivers, or at those idiots who call up to The Nolan Show on Radio Ulster to complain about things they'd be much better off ignoring and just getting on with their lives. It doesn't matter. It's your space to use however you like.

Cars represent freedom. Reading old novels is to realise how restricted people were to their home turf in the past. Ten miles away was another world.

Now we move at ease over great distances. Nothing beats that romantic appeal of the open road.

From the moment you get behind the wheel of a car the whole world opens up. Destiny is literally in your own hands.

You can go anywhere, in your own time, taking whatever diversions take your fancy along the way. It doesn't matter about the weather. Wind and snow and baking heat can all be held at bay.

You see it in films such as Thelma And Louise, or in those old songs about the lure of the highway.

Looking back, does anything come close to that magical childhood feeling of packing the car to the rafters and heading off on holiday?

There are two twin inducements calling out, siren-like, to every one of us: home and away. Both represent different ends of the spectrum.

One means security and stability, the other independence and adventure, but they're both psychologically important.

Some people say the freedom which cars represent is an illusion peddled by older drivers and that younger people simply can't afford to feel that way anymore, partly because of the cost of car ownership.

They do have a point. Young drivers today practically have to sell their organs on eBay to afford insurance and there are undoubtedly dangerous and dark sides to driving. The roads are also more crowded now than they were in the days when one could extol the charm of the internal combustion engine without being accused of personally murdering polar bears.

That's especially true in parts of England, where driving can feel like being on the original highway to hell, as cars and trucks scream by en route to who knows where. Their own Travel Survey confirms this. There, more than 80% of journeys are by car.

Northern Ireland, thankfully, still feels much less fast and furious. Once you get out of Belfast the roads aren't heaving so much with traffic. They're never entirely empty, but you can still recapture some of that old motoring freedom.

In fact, I've often thought that if they want to safeguard Northern Ireland's place in the UK, unionists should start an ad campaign to encourage English people who are tired of modern life to move here on the grounds that it still feels in places a bit like England must have done years ago, when there was room to stretch out and breathe.

Think of it as another Plantation, but one to which the politically correct couldn't possibly object without being accused of being anti-immigration.

Of course, if too many people did come here, then the roads would end up every bit as crowded as those over the water, which would defeat the purpose; but it might be worth it just to enrage the holier-than-thou Greens. Not that they need any excuse to wag their fingers or pick our pockets.

These new figures, thankfully, show what they're up against here.

As 'Braveheart' William Wallace might have put it, you can take our money, but you can never take our freedom to get in the car and drive away from the relentless nagging.

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