Thursday, 26 March 2009

How ‘green’ is Streetcar?

The Streetcar circus came to town yesterday, with a stall in the shopping mall and a display of shiny Polo and Golf saloons in the Town Square, along with a pair of blue inflatable cars for those contemplating a trip down the River Lea.

Streetcar is a car hire firm with a difference. In co-operation with local authorities it parks its hire cars in exclusive on-street parking bays scattered around a neighbourhood. Basically, in return for an annual fee, local residents can book a time slot for using the car, with the rental charge depending on the amount of time the vehicle is required for. Streetcar also rents vans. Membership is £59.50 a year, which gives you access to a car for £3.95 an hour or £39.50 for the day. You get insurance and "30 miles of petrol" thrown in, after which petrol is charged at 23p a mile. You pick up your vehicle and return it to "its own dedicated space" at one of 800 London locations.

Local authorities are keen to promote Streetcar. According to Waltham Forest council’s Sustainable Communities department, Streetcar offers the glorious vision of Fewer cars on the road, with one car club car potentially replacing up to 20 private cars.

How is that enticing statistic arrived at? Plucked out of thin air, I think. If twenty households which each own one car all get rid of them and all share one Streetcar then it would be true (though in total it only takes 19 cars off the road, as you still have the Streetcar). This assumes that these twenty households all want to use the Streetcar at different times. Common sense suggests this is unlikely to happen. If twenty households all want to rent the car on Saturday, or in August, then supply is plainly going to be inadequate to demand. There are, of course, other Streetcars in the neighbourhood. But they also have twenty households wanting to use them.

So to my mind the statistic doesn’t make any sense. But it’s the sort of crap you can expect to emerge from ‘Sustainable Communities’ which is based in ‘Environment and Regeneration’ which is located at Sycamore House, Forest Road E17 – a council building used by members of the public, which lacks a single cycle stand for visitors (though it does have some lovely new, clean, locked bike sheds exclusively for the use of council officers).

Hackney Council also co-operates with Streetcar, gushing that it is

part of our wider work to increase opportunities for everyone in the borough and make the area safer, cleaner and greener.

One of these ‘green’ ambitions is

to relieve parking pressures within the borough

In other words, if some households can be persuaded to get rid of their cars, this will make things easier for those households which own two, three or four vehicles.

Another reason is

to improve the level of social inclusion experienced by residents who can not afford their own car (sic)

In other words, to promote car use. Ten per cent of journeys in Hackney are supposedly made by bicycle. Instead of building on that very impressive base, Hackney Council remains in love with the car and car travel. Hackney is crap to cycle in (don't get me started).

But while local authorities promote Streetcar as an exciting new ‘Green’ scheme, Streetcar itself makes no such claims and simply pitches itself as offering cheaper motoring. It is a company which boasts that it has 'aggressive' growth plans following a £6.4 million investment by Smedvig Capital. Its non-executive chairman is Sir Trevor Chinn, who is also chairman of the A.A.

Streetcar’s ambition is to make money for its shareholders, not to save the planet.

Sir Trevor Chinn has also had years of involvement with the Motorists’ Forum. This is a shadowy but very powerful lobby group which cosies up to like-minded car supremacists at the Department for Transport.

The Motorists' Forum works with a range of Government Departments, including the DfT, DTI and the Home Office, across a breadth of motoring related topics. It takes the approach of trying to agree a work programme with Government Departments where they can influence the Department and bring together a body of people with a breadth of knowledge and expertise.

Although it includes one token green – the estimable Stephen Joseph of the Campaign for Better Transport – it is overwhelmingly dominated by road lobby representatives, such as

Karen Dee - Confederation of British Industry
Paul Everitt - Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders
Joe Greenwell - Ford Motor Company Ltd
David Holmes CB - RAC Foundation
Chris Hunt - UK Petroleum Industry Association Ltd
John Lewis - British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association
Nick Starling - Association of British Insurers
Andrew Strong - Automobile Association
Neil Thompson - RAC

These people do not in any sense represent British motorists but rather businesses keen to see people buying and using motor vehicles. The Motorists' Forum is hostile to restraints on reckless driver behaviour and is basically a more sophisticated, more effective and far less shrill lobby than the self-styled Association of British Drivers (ABD). Ironically, the ABD, unlike the Motorists' Forum, genuinely represents motorists - albeit a tiny, unrepresentative minority of petrolhead libertarians.

The accomplishments of the Motorists' Forum include acknowledging that Intelligent Speed Adaptation (technology that can control maximum speed through a mandatory speed limiting function that the driver cannot override) could significantly reduce carnage on the roads, while concluding

we wish to make it clear that we are not recommending the compulsory fitment or usage of ISA. And we note the Department for Transport's position that any future use of ISA should be taken forward by the motoring industry in response to customer demand, just as with other technologies available for customers to purchase if they so choose.

That's right, reckless speeding and killing people should be a matter of personal choice. What's the point of buying a nice shiny car designed to do 140 mph if it comes with a spoilsport device that forces you to obey the speed limit? On such hypocrisies is the nation's blood-drenched 'road safety' industry based - but you won't find the sycophantic Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (sic) ever adverting to them.

The Motorists Forum also boasts

The Forum believes that their advice played a part in Government deciding that authorities wishing to join the "netting off" scheme should be required to make safety cameras more visible to motorists.

So it would be fair to say that the Chairman of Streetcar is not someone who is readily associated with sustainability or environmentalism.

One thing that intrigues me about Waltham Forest and Streetcar is this. Since this is a money-making business, is the Council charging Streetcar to rent street space for its cars? Some cost is involved in marking out the bays, putting up signing and making traffic orders, and there is also a loss of revenue for bays located in Controlled Parking Zones, which many of them are. Or is the Council supplying these bays for nothing, on 'environmental' grounds, effectively leaving the local council taxpayers to subsidise Streetcar’s profits and Sir Trevor Chinn’s no doubt very agreeable remuneration?

Ah, if only someone could invent some sort of cheap self-propelling device which allowed people to travel around London without requiring petrol and which didn't generate air and sound pollution...