Tragedy of the Commons

Our local supermarket is Waitrose.  I believe it is the largest of their branches in the UK.  They recently installed new barriers to the car park, which lead to an incident that demonstrates amply the tragedy of the commons.

It was a hazy early Saturday afternoon.  I’d normally do the weekly shop earlier in the day, but it had been more of a lazy start to the day that usual, you know how it goes, especially with three kids to deal with at the same time.  I’m afraid I do shop at Waitrose regularly, and I do drive a car to get there, and so it was that day.Berkhamsted Waitrose Car Park

It surprised me when approaching the car park that the usual lengthy queue was not present.  Where was everyone?  As I closed in on the new barriers, I started to see what was going on.

The car park was jammed full of cars.  Not just in the bays, but grid locked, engines humming, trying to find a space.  The staff were obviously having teething problems with the new barriers, which were up.  The barriers up, everyone had just driven in unthinking, and the chaos before me had ensued.

Not much point in ploughing on in, I thought.  I’ll wait here just outside the car park for a few cars to leave, to ease the situation.  Very sensible.  I switched my engine off.

A few minutes later, with no more cars adding to the mess in the car park, a few gaps in the traffic were starting to appear.  As had a small queue behind me.  I resolved to count five more cars out then I’d go in, and hope that the people behind me were awake enough not to all stream in in my wake.

I’d barely counted a couple of cars leaving before someone approached from behind.  An elderly gentleman leant down to my window.

“Are you having a problem?” he asked.  I explained about the faulty barriers, and my ploy to wait for the situation to ease before going in.  To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by his reaction – he started getting a little animated.  “There’s a queue behind you, you know!” he accurately pointed out.  I told him there should be a queue, if the barriers were working, and I’d wait a little longer.  He went back to his car in a huff.

Slightly to spite him, I waited for another five cars to leave (which was difficult to explain to the small enquiring voices from the back seat).  Found a space straight away.

What this little saga demonstrated to me was how blinkered and unthinking people can be in their daily lives, if all they do is concentrate on their own little piece of the overall jigsaw.  No wonder, I thought, that we are finding it so difficult to make the adjustments necessary to work together to reduce our impact on the future.

If we don’t realise that driving into a car park that is directly in front of us and is demonstrably over-full is a little on the stupid side, what chance have we got of realising that we are all collectively driving a massive wedge into our future and that of our children?

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


Idling our future away

When it comes to actually making changes to the way we live to lessen the impact we have on the climate, I can typically see both sides of the argument.  Take wind farms as an example.

As a child I used to look round at the views on Anglesey and strain and struggle to find any view that did not contain signs of human activity.  Even looking into the skies did not help as I realised that the slowly dissipating stringy clouds were produced by planes soaring across the heavens.

So I totally get why people would not want our beautiful landscapes further derided by human structures with the erection of turbines*.

What I don’t understand and really can’t abide is where people needlessly waste energy and pollute.

In particular: idling cars.  Bloody people sitting in their cars with the windows down in a car park with the bloody engine on.  What on earth are they thinking?  Really makes my blood boil.Exhaust fumes - do not loiter - smaller

I have at times resolved to ask people, or confront them.  I’ve tried a lot of different tactics.

I might open with “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking, what is the reason for you having your engine on at the moment?”

“What’s it to you?” would come the rather indignant reply.

“I’m worried about the fumes and the effect on the climate, not to mention that it’s wasting your money”

“Good point, thank you” was a recent response from someone sitting in a sports centre car park in their car.  They left the engine running.  I left them to it.

Or I might say “Excuse me, could you please turn your engine off?  My children are walking past your car and I’d rather they didn’t have to breathe in the fumes”.  More success with that one, but people can still get a little uppity.

Not many people realise that you only need to be stationary for 10 seconds or more before you would have saved money had you switched the engine off.  It is almost always worth switching off your motor if you stop at a traffic light (other than a pedestrian crossing – you don’t get much time to walk across the road), let alone when you are waiting outside someone’s home, or in a car park.

If you stop at a traffic light 10 times a day, and sit idle for 20 minutes a day on average, you would save between £180 and £632 per year on your petrol bill (depending on the efficiency of your car)**.  And your engine would last longer.  Imagine how much taxis could save.

I know at some times of the year people have the engine on to run the air conditioning or the heater.  Seems utterly daft to me – running a large petrol engine to heat a car?  Imagine doing that in your home, you’d feel a little daft.  But it’s when people leave the car running for no reason at all that really gets under my skin.
small image - no idling car sign
Oh, and by the way, it is illegal in the UK to have your car running while being on the mobile, even if it isn’t moving.  You need to switch it off and take the key out.

Thoughts on how (or whether) I should approach people much appreciated.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

* The way I think of it, though, wind turbines are temporary.   If we want to cook, heat, watch telly, have loads of lights on in the house – we need electricity.  So we have a choice, do we generate that electricity in a way that will arguably spoil some views for 20-30 years?  Or do we instead burn gas, oil and coal, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to damage our climate – and hence our views – effectively forever?  Nuclear is another matter – I say let’s put a load of reactors round the coast as well as build the wind farms.  Bring on nuclear fusion.

** Calculation: 10 stops of 20 seconds per day = 20 hours per year.  20 minutes idling per day = 120 hours per year.  140p per litre of petrol = £6.36 per gallon.  Saving between 1/5 or 7/10 of a gallon per hour = saving of £180 to £632 per year.