Friday, August 25, 2006

What's Ken's Real Problem with 4x4s?

London mayor Ken Livingstone recently revealed his sympathies with an on-going, badly misinformed campaign against so-called 'Chelsea tractors'.

Last month it was reported in
The Times that, in response to the demands of a collection of groups strangely obsessed with 'urban 4x4s', Livingstone now plans to hit these cars with an increased London congestion charge of £25 - a massive hike of more than 200% over the standard £8 charge.

If some of the hyperbole of these anti-4x4 groups is to be believed, Britain is apparently being "taken over" by "giant" four wheel drive cars. The leading anti group says that it aims to "make driving a big 4x4 in town as socially unacceptable as drink-driving" and, even more irrationally, wishes to "see an end to 4x4 adverts in the mainstream media".

Several criticisms are being regularly thrown at 4x4s and their owners as a result of this campaign. Yet even to a casual observer capable of simply opening one of the many car magazines found on newagents' shelves, none stand up to the slightest scrutiny.

So how on earth is London's mayor now taking them so seriously, to consider slapping such disproportionate charges on drivers of these cars?

Reality: size of 4x4s

The most commonly cited protest concerns the size of these cars - that 'selfish' 4x4 owners are 'taking up more space with their big cars than they need in an overcrowded city'.

For Livingstone at least, as a mayor who is driving double-deckers off the road to make way for 'bendy buses' occupying twice the road-space, the need to prevent larger vehicles clogging London's roads can hardly be top of his concerns.

Yet how much are these protests about size caused by an overly simplistic response to the style and appearance of 4x4s, rather than their actual dimensions?

It seems a great deal, because the reality is that 4x4s are actually often shorter than everyday 'urban' family saloon cars that nobody complains about. For example, a BMW X5 at 467cm is significantly shorter than the company's mid-range 5-series saloon at 484cm. Similary VW's 4x4 Touareg is shorter than the Passat.

Not only that, but 4x4s also tend to be only marginally wider than mid-range saloons. Using the BMW example above, the X5 is a mere 3cm wider than the 5-series. Even a Land Rover Discovery - arch-nemesis of the anti 4x4 brigade - is only 10cm wider than a Ford Mondeo.

Can a mere 10cm really be the reason for all the fuss and special attention 4x4s are subjected to? Would these groups fall silent if 4x4s were that small amount narrower? Seems unlikely.

There's no doubt that 4x4s are significantly taller than other cars, but so what? Is it terribly selfish and over-crowding to take up more height than a standard car?

Reality: fuel efficiency

So if there's no basis to complaints about the size of 4x4s, it must surely be their fuel economy that's causing the angst. 'Gas guzzling' is another shrill term now so thoughtlessly prefixed to the term '4x4s' whenever they're discussed.

But that can't be the problem either. A quick look at the economy data in the back of most car magazines shows that some 4x4s are actually more economical that many smaller cars. For example, all of the current Land Rover Freelander range in doing an average 37 miles per gallon do better than even some Mini models.

So it clearly also completely defies logic to label a car a 'gas guzzler' merely because of its size or appearance.

Reality: 4x4s and emissions

Ah, but is it their emissions? We all want to see reduced pollution and a better living environment.
But what exactly is Livingstone aiming at in intending to impose restrictive costs on 4x4 owners?

If it's tackling global warming, then reducing the CO2 emissions spread by less efficient petrol cars - whatever their appearance - is at least an understandable goal. For someone who believes the theory that humans are affecting climate change, that is.

However, Livingstone actually tries to justify his planned attack on 4x4 owners by talking of 'improving London's air quality'. If this is his goal, then the solution is different. It's not petrol engines and CO2 that are the culprit but diesels and their far more harmful NOx and particles emissions that directly harm ground level air quality the worst.

So instead of picking on a class of vehicle based only on its appearance and number of driven wheels, surely a more sensible course of action would be a study into whether what must be by far the biggest singly-managed source of diesel emissions - the 6,800 buses Livingstone is ultimately responsible for - are really all necessary. Especially given they are likely to travel four times more miles a year spewing their emissions than any average private car.

Since Livingstone became mayor, the number of buses on the road has increased rapidly. Oxford Street is now frequently nose-to-tail buses, emitting NOx and particulates into the lungs of thousands of shoppers.

How many buses are regularly seen almost, if not completely, empty? Certainly every single one of them is constantly stopping, accelerating again from standstill and standing stationary for extended periods in busy shopping centres with many people to breathe in the fumes nearby.

Of course, I'd be the first to agree that all reasonable steps should be taken to reduce harmful emissions from any source.

But to irrationally and disproportionately persecute a small number of Londoners for their car choice while simultaneously jamming ever more buses onto London's roads to travel hundreds of thousands more miles and spew more health-threatening pollution into the air we all have to breathe than any 4x4 is likely to is quite obviously ridiculous behaviour.

Conclusion: Ken's real problem

So if it can't be the size of 4x4s, or that they supposedly guzzle fuel, or even that they're a major culprit for poor air quality in London harming human health, what could it possibly be that 'Red' Ken finds so objectionable about these conspicuously larger cars - these cars most often owned by London's wealthier inhabitants?

The only explanation that makes any sense is that the anti-4x4 agenda is nothing more than a remnant of lame, outdated class warfare, with which Livingstone used to be so closely associated.

Surely it's about time someone with the ear of Mr Livingstone bought a car magazine, pointed out a few facts, and advised his boss to stop embarrassing himself by supporting such an either simply illogical, or lamentably outdated, campaign.

This sort of mindset may be expected from a small rump of anti-capitalist fanatics trying to dress up their outdated ideas in 'green' banners in a last ditch attempt to attract some interest.

But surely the last thing our leading 21st century capital city needs is its mayor hitching himself to such unjustified and outdated dogma. Modern London deserves better.