If you give up driving, I’ll give up smoking!

Transport and health issues were central to Simon Wolff’s academic and environmental work. They are also key areas in which the SWCF wishes to encourage debate, provide information to the general public and make representations to the authorities which make decisions affecting us all.

Although most people in the UK are now aware of the existence of Road Protesters and have seen news reports of their direct action, this awareness does not necessarily translate into an understanding of how transport and planning policies affect both our individual decisions on how we go to work, school, the shops etc and the effect these decisions have on our health. Many people feel that traffic ”fumes” must be bad, without knowing exactly why or indeed what can be done about it. There is a clear need for the provision of scientific information in plain English, in particular to show how and why the continuing reliance on car use is doing so much damage. Without hard scientific facts, there will be no change. And change is certainly needed.

In future issues of Radical News we will be focusing on individual topics in the transport and health debate. Here are some appetisers taken from Simon’s work and some of the aphorisms he used to get the message home.

“Lead may make you stupid, but benzene gives you cancer”

One of Simon’s great coups was his sinking of super-unleaded petrol (marketed by some oil companies as “super green”). In November 1995 taxes on it were increased in the Budget because Simon had shown the House of Commons Transport Committee that unleaded petrol replaced lead with cancer-causing aromatics: Lead may make you stupid he said, but benzene gives you cancer.

This shooting down of one of the Oil Lobby’s carefully crafted “green fuels” repeated his earlier feat when he became the first UK scientist to show that the switch to diesel is, as he sardonically told MP’s, “a large scale experiment in lung cancer.”

Simon did not, of course, endear himself to the Department of Transport by this, but neither was he the darling of the Green professionals. Why not? Because, over the years, successive cure-alls such as lead-free petrol have been championed, yet none has worked. What they have done is provide an effective camouflage so that the road-building programme can continue. The Road and Oil Lobby (faithfully served by the Department of Transport) has always worked behind a green camouflage. Simon worked hard to strip away that camouflage and expose the policies for what they are.

“I’ll stop smoking if you stop driving!”

Simon never minded a clear-eyed look at sacred dogmas. He distrusted the Pavlovian reaction to radioactivity: and when it was reported that areas with more radon have higher cancer levels, he showed that these were usually also economically better off. Was it more car-driving with increased ingestion of carcinogenic benzene which increased cancer levels? Simon also suspected blaming tobacco for all lung cancers was a clever move to exculpate worse pollutants, notably transport fumes, and often said, “I’ll stop smoking if you stop driving.”

No more roads

Simon helped kill the notorious Archway Motorway in London, one of the very few Department of Transport roads ever stopped. More roads mean more traffic and more traffic means more asthma and more cancer, so why build or widen any more roads? Yet not 5% of Green articles on transport matters actually say “stop building roads – all roads – now”. In case anyone thinks that roadbuilding has stopped (bar the odd bypass) and that we are all green today, perhaps they are unaware that £500 m a year is being spent on new and wider roads in and near London alone while the Underground and bus systems are at Third World levels. It’s time to look at the alternatives. And there are viable alternatives. Watch this space!