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Comment - Irish Politics

Car use is not simply the prerogative of the middle class

There seems to be a vogue for condemning everyone who doesn’t share your opinions as being morally reprehensible, selfish, ignorant, or a class enemy. Violent language is regularly used online against anyone who questions the validity of transgender ideology. Owners of rented property are condemned as exploiters of their lessees.

And now Irish Times readers have been invited to take the view that those who defend ownership and use of cars do so in “bad faith”, engage in “hairsplitting”, and are exhibiting the “selfish hysteria of middle-class drivers”. Car ownership is radically at odds with tackling climate change and is a threat to the health and well-being of everyone, it is suggested.

Let’s examine those charges. The Government plans that 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) will be on our roads by 2030. Eamon Ryan insists this can be done, even if it will be challenging. Cars using fossil fuels will be phased out.

Why would achieving that target not permit car ownership and use, both in cities and rural areas?

Car use is simply not the prerogative of the odious and hysterical middle class. Huge numbers of people from every class depend on having the use of a car. Only the very well-to-do middle class could afford the routine use of taxis for their daily life activities such as bringing children to creches and school in many cases, collecting kids from dances and gigs, attendings sports events, doing the weekly shopping, looking after elderly relatives, and collecting them for family events.

Buses simply can’t and never will provide for these needs. Taking two bus trips either way to carry out these tasks would add hours to perfectly normal daily and weekly routines.

A construction worker living in Dublin city centre often needs daily use of a car to get to his or her building site. Carers need the use of a car to get to their urban clients’ homes. Living in rural Ireland without a car would be almost impossible for most families without access to a car.

Any suggestion that public transport in the form of buses, taxis, bikes and e-scooters will suffice to sustain the entire transport needs of a vast number of people is fanciful and unrealistic.

Once electric cars become cheaper and are provided with Eamon Ryan’s promised charging infrastructure, a working man or woman and their family living in a city will be able to own and use a non-polluting car causing few emissions and little noise.

Air pollution in Phibsboro caused by traffic should be massively reduced if we meet the 2030 EV target. But many people driving fossil fuel or electric cars between Phibsboro and the Liffey via Church St these days might wonder whether the daylong gridlocked traffic congestion on that route deliberately created by a new traffic light timing regime imposed by Dublin City Council might not have an awful lot to do with those emissions levels.

Access to cars is a massively liberating and enabling thing for so many people of all classes in all parts of the country. Car users are not the class enemy of some hypothetical majority in society. Those who have access to public transport or who can cycle to work and leisure and live in a 15-minute urban environment may well wish to dispense with car ownership. That is their choice. But for many people it is simply not a choice.

I doubt that most people would argue against planting more trees to increase shade or encouraging urban dwellers to keep bee-hives. Nobody is stopping anyone from re-wilding their front and rear gardens.

They might, however, have reservations about re-purposing our streets and roads for vegetable allotments, bee-keeping, and communal barbeques and performance spaces. They might reasonably prefer to live in areas where car ownership and use is still facilitated when fossil fuel vehicle are phased out.

They might like to travel in an electric car on a wet evening to a centre-city cinema, theatre or music venue and be able to park their car in a convenient multistorey car park and later drop off their friends to their homes.

That doesn’t make them selfish. They might not be able to afford €50 or €60 in taxi fares on top of the price of a meal and tickets. Wanting to do that doesn’t make them hysterical members of the middle class either.

Since all our planned public transport projects are many, many years from completion, banning all cars, even EVs, in pursuit of climate change goals is neither sustainable nor politically feasible.

Intolerance of others, and dogmatic pursuit of unrealistic utterly goals, is building up a head of political steam among the great majority of reasonable people. Their reasonable views cannot and should not be dismissed as the stuff of phoney cynical debate, radio phone-in outrage, or populist push-back.



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