finance

Why the pandemic is pushing city dwellers towards cars


Early in lockdown, I would often go outside and gaze at the sky, freed from its shimmery pollution to reveal an azure blue rarely seen above London. Without car horns and aeroplanes, birdsong could occasionally be heard.

Environmentalists insist that we can find a way to hold on to at least some of those benefits post-Covid-19. But outside my front door sits my first car. Parked with it are any plans to cut my own contribution to pollution.

I’m far from alone. Car dealerships in the UK capital are reporting a new breed of buyer, the 30- or 40-something city dweller opting for vehicle ownership amid fears that public transport has become a no-go zone.

This shift, replicated in cities like New York and increasingly in China, could dent plans for a “green” recovery. Conservative politician Jeremy Hunt this month argued on Twitter that we should use the drop in traffic during the lockdown “to make a permanent change, so that we never go back to the pollution we had before”. Unfortunately, you can barely hear him over the noise of cars streaming past in the video.

As lockdown has eased in the UK, petrol and diesel sales have returned to 82 per cent of pre-crisis levels. Early data from China, the first major economy to largely emerge from the pandemic, suggests resurgent growth in new car sales.

This is good news for car manufacturers, who have seen young professionals in big cities over the last couple of decades show little interest in cars. Tubes, trains and buses are normally quicker; congestion charges, parking fees and insurance soon add up. As millennials and Generation X turned their backs on the suburban dreams of their parents, paying for two tonnes of depreciating metal seemed a waste.

Not everyone in lockdown is going the car route — bike sales have soared. But while pedalling around is great now, it may be less popular in winter.

My own reason for buying a car was less to do with navigating inner London than with getting out of the city. The thought of not being able to safely visit my parents in Scotland nudged me from idly browsing Auto Trader to drawing up spreadsheets of costs. My bank account seemed better prepared to cope without the usual nights in the pub. It became a necessity when my partner and I had to go back and forth to a sick relative outside London while keeping our “bubble” intact.

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I’ve argued before that electric cars will be a game changer, not just for the auto industry but for the oil sector too, probably hastening the onset of peak demand. The UK has over 30,000 charging points, with more than 10,000 added last year, so “range anxiety” should not be an issue. Yet in Covid-19, I hesitated — having to spend 45 minutes at a motorway service station would normally be a mild inconvenience, but how do you kill time when almost everything is shut? What if we had to race to our relative and the car was not charged?

In the end I bought a second-hand plug-in hybrid, that allows electric journeys in town, with a petrol engine for the motorway. This is better than nothing, but the polluting engine does most of the miles.

Graeme Train, an economist at commodity trader Trafigura, said the smart money was still betting that EVs would be among the beneficiaries of the pandemic, with the EU pushing for a green recovery deal. “In Europe there has been a trend for younger people to learn to drive later or to use shared ownership schemes. That’s now looking less attractive, but younger consumers generally still want cleaner cars,” Mr Train said.

For city residents without a garage or driveway, charging can be a problem. My request to Islington council for an on-street charging post was met with a curt “no guarantees . . . and it could take a year”. For now, I have to park directly in front of my house to sling the cable out of the window. This needs constant vigilance to catch the space when it becomes free. No one told me owning a plug-in hybrid would turn me into a curtain-twitching busybody. So much for rejecting suburbia.

But for all its problems, the car is a lifeline, at least until the world and its travel options can return to something approaching normal. Like so much in 2020, I just wish it had never turned out this way.

david.sheppard@ft.com





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