Whenever I get caught in a queue of cars, which is increasingly infrequent these days, I always remind myself of the oft-quoted line, “You’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” It’s as if once we get inside the bubble of our car we fail to see the place of the vehicle, or ourselves, in the world quite properly.

I’m not immune to the allure of the car. Earlier this year, on a visit to the exhibition, Motion, at the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao (reached by train, not car or plane), I found myself marveling over the beauty of the automobile. It was like a tour of wonder, passing by a Chrysler Airflow from 1934, a Jaguar E-Type from 1961, the space-age yellow, lozenge of a Pegaso Z-102 Cúpula from 1952, and it was hard not to be seduced by these objects of metallic desire.

But the reality of the car in my life, and in the lives of most of the households – four out of five – that own them in the UK, is quite different. My husband and I are the slightly stressed owners of an old rust-bucket which we have been trying to keep on the road till it splutters its last emissions, while we swither over whether ditching car ownership and joining a car club might be the better option, financially and practically.

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Letting go, as a society, is proving hard to do, even when the decision seems obvious. The future may look to be about electric vehicles, but the Scottish Government also has the goal to reduce car miles by 20 percent by 2030 – and on that we are still progressing in the wrong direction. The recent Climate Change Committee report into Scotland’s progress said we were “significantly off track”. Car use dipped dramatically during the first year of the pandemic but has been on the rise since.

But the reasons we are progressing in the wrong direction aren’t because car ownership makes sense on a practical level. It’s because we are under a collective spell. We’ll say that the car is about convenience, and of course it is – but the car is not always as convenient as we make out.

Car ownership can be a bit of a drag. You have to look after the vehicle, maintain it, pay for it, cope with it when it breaks down – and even when it is convenient, it turns out that type of convenient isn’t that good for our health. Many of us would be better off walking. So it was good, last week, to see a study that looked into the skewed nature of our perspective on cars and deliver a jolt of reality.

What it showed was that people accept risks and harms from cars in a way that they would not accept them in other parts of life. It found, for instance, over 60 per cent of people agreed with the statement, “Risk is a natural part of driving, and anyone driving has to accept that they could be seriously injured”. But when the word driving was swapped for “working”, only around 30 percent agreed. Author Professor Ian Walker calls the phenomenon motonormativity.

On a Tweet, he summarised the study, saying, “The short version is this: ‘Car Brain’ – the cultural blind spot that makes people apply double standards when they think about driving – is real, measurable and pervasive.”

Other studies have revealed similar distortions. One, from the United States published in Nature Sustainability last year looked at the value people assign to ownership and found that more than half of it was from non-use value. It wasn’t about what the car could do for us in terms of transport; it was about feelings of freedom, autonomy and status.

Last year junior transport minister Trudy Harrison described owning a car as so “last century”. Of course, it isn’t last century if you live in a remote spot in Scotland, or a suburban estate with poor amenities. But some city dwellers I know are already ditching their cars. Rarely did they cite the climate as a motivation. More often it was cost. For who can afford a car in these times of a cost of living crisis?

People call this a war on cars – but really it’s a war on “car brain”. It’s an increasing acknowledgement that almost everything about how we need to change our worlds in order to drive less, and cover fewer miles, has other non-emissions benefits, in terms of health and fairness.

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Why did it take a climate crisis and net zero plan to bring about the very obvious concept of a 20-minute neighbourhood? Surely, this should have been a priority of city and town planners for decades? I’ve noticed how my car use has diminished in recent years and part of that is because where we live is already exactly the kind of 20-minute neighbourhood that the government seeks to roll out.

At some point, I believe, we will be car-brained no more. It may seem long way off, far down a highway still congested with automobile dreams, but we will get there. Though, for now, too many of us still remain caught in traffic. Too many, like myself, still are that traffic. And that net zero clock is ticking.