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Barry Cash writes: Are Quarter cars the answer: January 31, 2005


Subject: Following the Transport-watch advert Barry Cash writes: Are Quarter cars the answer?

"Selling is easy. You ask people what they want and then you give it to them". So said a better salesman than I. In those words of wisdom lies the solution to global warming.

The fact that you're reading "Challenge" means I don't have to tell you that climate change is going to be a problem. You will readily agree with me that it would be a good ideal not to increase the emission of CO2. If I suggest that we should prevent an increase in the amount of fuel burnt to provide road transport you will probably agree; it depends on how much you use and love your car.

Where we will differ is on how to do it. Conventional thinking is that that we should discourage the use of private cars and persuade (make?) people use public transport. Absolute codswallop! Look again at the salesman's words. "Ask people what they want and then you give it to them". In the 1950s most people went by bus because few had a car. Yet as soon as they could most bought a car.  If they wanted buses they wouldn't have bought cars.

So, if we are to change peoples transport habits we need to give them what they want - the low cost, comfort, and convenience of the car.

Have you ever considered why cars are the shape they are? I don't mean why are they flattish and have a wheel at each corner. That's because otherwise they would fall over. What I am getting at is that the typical car has four or five seats, the engine at the front and a space for luggage at the rear. Why? It's rare that we use all the seats or the luggage space together.

I suspect that the reason is tradition. When the Internal combustion engine became available the obvious thing to do with it was to put it at the front of the carriage to replace the horses. The driver sat behind it with a space next to him for another servant and Lord and Lady Rich sat in the back. Any luggage went at the rear. Sound familiar?

In fact if you stand by the side of the road for half an hour or so you will see that the commonest cargo carried by vehicles of all types is the empty seat. I know because I have done this. Which tells you as much about the exciting life I lead, as it does about the traffic here in Bristol.

Suppose we clear our minds and start with a blank sheet. We have a network of smooth tarmac that connects virtually every building in the country with almost every other building. We also have a truly amazing range of mechanical, electro-mechanical, and electronic technology available to build it from. This includes not only a wide range of engines but also all sorts of luxuries such as air-conditioning and entertainment.

Clearly a vehicle that runs on tarmac and uses a petrol engine will have the advantage that our world is already well equipped for it. Most cars seem to carry only one person and do short or medium journeys for most of the time. Indeed 70% of us go to work by car and how many of us go alone? But I cannot see a single sweater meeting enough of the need. Too often I have to pick up my wife or take my teenage daughter somewhere, to say nothing of my elderly mother's hospital appointments and the weekly visit to the supermarket.

I suggest we need something that will take at least one passenger and has a fair size box for luggage. A motorcycle? In theory perhaps, but people don't use them in preference to cars do they? Even though they are cheaper. There are probably many reasons for this. People think they are hard to ride because they need balancing and they are more accident-prone. The rider needs protective clothing, which means you can't just get in and go. Also, traditionally you used a motorbike until you could afford a car.

But supposing we gave the motor bike four wheels and totally enclosed the rider. In effect, make it into a micro car. With modern design and technology I reckon we could make a vehicle, suitable for town driving, with all the performance and luxury of a BMW in about a quarter of the space. Obviously it would only carry the driver and one passenger. But car designers are nothing if not inventive. I'm sure we should soon see small vehicles where the passenger space could be adapted to seat two children or a load of shopping.

What's the advantage? Well a vehicle a quarter of the size would use a quarter of the fuel, produce a quarter of the pollution, release a quarter of the carbon dioxide, and require only a quarter of the road space. We could reduce all of these problem areas by 75% just as fast as we could build these "Quarter cars". The obvious drawback is that they would only produce 25% of the fuel tax revenue!

But why should anyone use them? The first problem is that mention small vehicles and people will immediately think of that ghastly monstrosity the Sinclair C5. Let me make it clear that I am proposing a luxury vehicle. It has to be because in the beginning they will be expensive until mass production gets underway and until they are old enough to appear on the second hand market.

I suggest that the way to sell these is to ask what extra features the driver of a luxury car would like. My suggestions? A clear road and somewhere to park! But you can hardly make them features of a car can you? Well actually I think you could.

Supposing we set the maximum width of a "quarter car" to 3 feet ( 90 cm ) and 6 feet 6 inches ( 195 cm ) long. It would be perfectly possible to provide a narrow lane for "small vehicles" down the inside of our main roads. We could then give "quarter cars" priority over other traffic. Standard parking spaces would accommodate at least four "quarter cars" so it would be easy to provide lots more parking without using more land.

Nor would this be very costly. You see "small vehicle" or VS. lanes already exist in our towns. They usually have a caricature of a bicycle or the words"Bus Lane" marking them. All we need to do is paint over them with "VS. Lane" and away we go.

The point to note is that this scheme offers people what they want; their car, but doesn't try to force on them what they have already rejected; the bus. Of course not every one drives their own vehicle, or wants to, so we will need a new public transport system too. That will need another article, but I can tell you it involves banning buses.

Barry Cash January 2005


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