Is there a ‘war on the motorist’?

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


The furore over the widening of London’s ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ) to include all London boroughs has been identified by many as the latest battleground in a ‘war on the motorist’. The Welsh government has imposed a blanket speed limit of 20mph on all ‘residential’ roads. Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) have proliferated across the UK, making getting from A to B more difficult and increasing traffic jams on main roads nearby. All that on top of high taxes on fuel – in September 2023, around half the ‘pump price’ was made up of tax. In fact, when global oil prices were lower, as much as three quarters of the pump price was tax.

There have been protests against LTNs in London and independent candidates have stood in council elections to make the case for them to be scrapped. Opponents of London’s ULEZ have gone further, vandalising the cameras that are supposed to catch those who haven’t paid. Critics of anti-car measures point out that they are invaluable for many elderly and disabled people, as well as those with children. Life outside the big cities would be much more difficult without independent transport. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has declared ‘I’m slamming the brakes on the war on motorists’ and ‘hare-brained’ schemes such as LTNs and 20mph zones. Westminster is out of touch and too focussed on trains, he says, declaring: ‘cars are freedom for most people.’

Yet others think the claims of a ‘war on the motorist’ are overblown. Mileage has increased hugely in recent decades, from 141 billion miles in 1982 to 262 billion miles in 2019. The total number of cars rose around 50% between 1994 and 2022, from 21million to 32million – and all those extra vehicles need to park somewhere. The cost of driving has actually fallen compared to the general cost of living, while other forms of transport have become more expensive.

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has argued that while the poorest are least likely to own a car, they are much more likely to suffer the consequences of pollution. Drivers tend to be richer, older and of greater social status – are they really so powerless? Indeed, many would argue that cities are much more pleasant when the car is no longer king, creating space for walking and cycling. Campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists argue ’20mph zones make a significant difference for safety for kids’, advocating the Government ‘expand’ 20mph zones.

When so many people rely on cars for personal transport and the whole country relies on vans and trucks to move goods around, why has government at local and national level made driving harder? Is there really a ‘war on the motorist’ when driving is relatively cheaper and more popular than before? What’s wrong with encouraging people to cycle, walk or use public transport?

Mary Dejevsky
former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington; special correspondent in China; writer and broadcaster

Alan Miller
co-founder and chair, Together Association;

Simon Nash
environmentalist; speaker; activist and founder, Green Oil bicycle lubes


Dr Paul Reeves
developer of manufacturing simulation technology