Get the car guys out of the driving seat

City planners in Edinburgh have unveiled plans to turn the iconic George Street into a car-free European-style boulevard. It’s part of a wider vision to make the city far more “people-friendly”, with “greater reliance on public transport, on walking and cycling”, according to the SNP transport convener.

Meanwhile, in London, Westminster City Council has unveiled its framework for a reimagined Oxford Street, after ditching London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s pedestrianisation plans in 2018. The new proposal covers a larger area than just Oxford Street alone and uses lots of buzzwords such as “smart”, “sustainable”, “circular” and “active travel”. It describes “prioritisation of pedestrians” and talks about “promoting walkability”, but falls short of Khan’s plan to cut the car out of the picture altogether.  

Reading between the lines, though, it does come across as an attempt to squeeze the car out of the picture by stealth – by encouraging and facilitating the use of other means. The Edinburgh approach, on the other hand, is more overtly “anti-car”.

Traditionally, anything that openly seeks to disadvantage or demonise “the motorist” is met with substantial backlash from a vociferous motoring lobby, led by a powerful and influential corporate sector and facilitated by media heavily biased towards a culture of private car ownership.

The rise of the car ownership has been accompanied since the very start by the motoring media. They established themselves as influential thought leaders when the automobile was an unknown quantity. As the car went mainstream, the consumer desperately needed expert advice when it came to investing such a substantial proportion of household income, and the motoring media was there to help.

Yet, despite the multifaceted role of the automobile in modern life, the motoring journalist remains a monoculture. The vast majority are men, and they are almost all enthusiasts. It is an obligation of the profession to be passionate about the topic. Whether they are into the mechanical nuts and bolts, as favoured by weekend hobbyists, or addicted to the octane-infused kick of mastering these metallic beasts at high speeds on road or track, the underlying mindset is intense and deeply committed.

Yes, there is dispassionate objectivity in consumer reports that delve into fuel efficiency, boot capacity, legroom and safety equipment. However, it is set within a persistent narrative of power, speed, status and mastery.

The very fact that cars fall under the heading of lifestyle in many mainstream media outlets says it all, and is something car manufacturers worked very hard to achieve. The way we report and perceive cars is dominated by people far more interested in driving for the sheer joy of it rather than for the purpose of arriving at a destination. Those more interested in the latter are less worthy. They must be tolerated, accommodated even – but are not true believers.

The UK’s automotive media thought leaders such Autocar, What Car, Auto Express and Car are, as the names imply, focused entirely on car culture. It’s what defines their brands. They are wrapped up in a symbiotic, inherently pro-car, relationship with carmakers, attending press events and motor shows (virtually, for the time being), driving test cars and producing their assessments based on their findings. Some products fair well, others less so. But whether the output is comparative testing, a road trip feature or an opinion piece, what we have is a system of car guys in the industry talking to car guys in the media, who disseminate this information to the consumer filtered through an intoxicating infusion of car-guy love potion.

Initially deeply resistant to the idea of electric vehicles, they are gradually coming round, driven by the carmakers’ insistence on producing EVs, which is, in turn, driven by emissions legislation designed to make cars cleaner – not to threaten their supremacy in the food chain of personal mobility.

This is all supported and intensified by marketing from carmakers that tells us what we yearn to hear about these glorious, aspirational machines – they will make us sexier / happier / safer / trendier / more respected / better parents. They are such a central part of our lives that we should name them, individualise them, shower them in an enticing array of accessories, socialise with people who share our interest in them. Indeed, through the power of carmakers’ carefully nurtured social media activities and use of influencers, many are locked in a direct conversation with the customer that circumvents professional media reporting altogether.

The broader topic of how we move ourselves and goods from A to B is at a turning point brought about by multiple factors. A variety of players with an array of agendas are shaping that change, and the media needs to shake itself free from the way it covers cars to embrace a more inclusive perspective of mobility.

This is not just about whether or not we should buy an electric car or pedestrianise our streets. It goes much further and deeper than that. We have to enter into a proper discussion about how we use transportation as individuals and as a society. And that includes, to a very large extent, taking a long, hard look at our relationship with the car.

In Scotland, The Herald has all-but cut its dedicated car section (under the lifestyle heading) and occasionally reports on future mobility and integrated transportation. However, if the comments section is an indicator of reader engagement, it’s not a topic that draws people in.

The trouble is that outrage about road closures, traffic congestion and public transport failures is far more compelling and immediate than talk of Mobility as a Service (Maas), car sharing or multi-modal transportation. Formula 1, the latest James Bond car and celebrity car crashes make much more of an impression – even among the automotive illiterate – than a tram, ride share app or e-bike.

While the specialist media fans the flames of motoring passion by pushing the aspirational nature and personal freedoms of the privately owned car, mainstream media frames the tedium of traffic jams and the huge financial burden of car ownership as government policy and infrastructure matters, frequently portraying the motorist as a victim.

As the mediators between policy-makers, industry and the consumer, the media needs to be more inventive in its stories and less tribal in its language and categorisation. This is a huge topic with major consequences for our everyday lives and for our futures. In the midst of ongoing upheaval and disruption, carmakers are desperate to protect their brands. The strength of those brands is derived from powerful emotions.

However, the lovestruck motoring media seems uninclined to consider a more open relationship. In this respect, they are not thought leaders, but thought followers – doggedly pinned to the driving seat, their view of the road ahead marred by tunnel vision and sticking strictly to the route programmed into the satnav by the car industry.

Photo: courtesy of Daimler AG

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