Questions for more than Petrol-heads

I am not a petrol-head.

Some people choose to drive as their leisure activity. I am a ‘couple of times a week’ car user for practicality and convenience. Some people have a special relationship with their vehicle, its provenance, performance and powers. My criteria for choosing our family car was its capacity to fit two child car seats in the back with my petite mother in between. That and its fuel efficiency and reliability and I left the details to my husband. I am not a petrol-head.

Some people know cars like a second language. Makes, models, features, they read them effortlessly in passing. They would be able to respond to a police bulletin on a car without even thinking twice. I note the colour, size and maybe whether a car is a saloon or estate. And that’s if I’m concentrating. I am not a petrol-head.

Why do I say this? Because, despite not being a petrol-head, I like to watch Top Gear. It is entertaining, and, I believe, actually does make some interesting and potentially useful points. Even for a non-petrol-head with no interest in the relative speeds of million-pound super-cars around a track. Even for a professional transport planner.

Some people think there is a ‘war on the motorist’. Jeremy Clarkson appears to be one of those people. Cyclists, parking [wardens], speed cameras, politicians and especially transport planners have taken up arms and enjoined to make life difficult for the car driver. But I am a transport planner, and I disagree. My job is to plan for people who choose to drive as well as people who choose to walk, cycle or use public transport.

Petrol-heads may take exception, but parking restrictions, for example, are often designed for the car user’s benefit: Double yellow lines are preferable to long tailbacks on narrow High Streets where someone can pull over anywhere. And surely it is better for a local economy to manage and enforce limited parking spaces so they are used by more vehicles, rather than monopolised by one.

Furthermore, I know there are times when the car is the only choice or the best choice. And identifying whether it is the best choice (and perhaps some reasons why) is the sort of useful question Top Gear often raises. Their ‘research’ to answer these questions is often comical and sometimes incoherent, but it does not undermine the value of the questions the show raises.

Here are a few examples:

  1. What mode is best for speed and convenience in a major city? This season’s race across St Petersburg and 2007’s race across London asked this question. The final result wasn’t scientific and there was plenty of silliness that affected it (such as the Stig finding odd distractions on public transport), but staging a race is a means transport planners could use to test the users’ perspective of how modes compare. Moreover, the races also highlighted the hassles and obstacles that some users of each mode may face, but even more potential users may expect to encounter.
  2. How can a consumer judge how fuel efficient a car is and what is fuel-efficient or fuel-profligate driving? The challenge of eco-driving from Basel to Blackpool in 2008 or the trip through Ukraine last season with the aim to waste enough fuel to avoid Chernobyl were two episodes that explored this theme. Again, various perceptive points and common misperceptions were uncovered, although again, the use of just a few cars and the same three drivers is far from scientific. Still, the programmes suggest that adding distance wastes more fuel than using air conditioning, frequent aggressive acceleration and deceleration use more fuel than travelling consistently fast, and fuel gauges can underestimate the remaining fuel in a tank.
  3. Are the vehicles used for specified purposes fit for those purposes? From the recent assessment of ambulances to previous challenges between creatively modified Top Gear models or international comparators of taxis, buses, caravans, mobility scooters, goods vehicles and more, this sort of question is often the focus of the show’s feature section. (If you include super-cars, it is always a feature!) Again, both the tests (e.g. drag races) and the results (when points are awarded for what is actually the presenter’s competency or idiocy rather than the vehicle’s) are designed to entertain rather than answer, but the questions are still worthy. Popular vehicle choices for essential functions are as often the product of history as of due process. And few of these choices are reviewed regularly.

These are just a few questions that Top Gear raises, not just for petrol-heads to consider, but for transport planners.