Seven things we learned from a database of MOT tests with 34 million entries

Your big end’s gone: MOT test, 1962 style. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

Cars aren’t exactly CityMetric’s favourite mode of transport, but there’s no denying they’re a popular way to get around. Last month, the Department for Transport released its dataset of MOT tests carried out in England, Scotland and Wales throughout 2017, in a 34 million entry spreadsheet, all broken down by postcode area. Digging into the data reveals some odd, surprising and even useful insights.

1. Northern Cars Don’t Get Far

Not being a driver myself, this wasn’t a finding I expected going in, but the further north you go, the fewer miles on the clock you tend to find. Scotland shows remarkably low mileage, with most regions getting under 70,000 miles on average and none breaking 80,000. At an educated guess, this is down to rainier weather, colder temperatures and hills all putting extra strain on vehicles. It’s not necessarily that people drive less, but that their cars need replacing more often.

The two non-London postcode areas in England which fall in the lowest bracket for mileage are those containing the Yorkshire Dales and half of the Peak District, which, beautiful as they are, probably aren’t the easiest environments for drivers.

2. But Welsh cars do

Despite the rainy weather and difficult terrain, all of Wales’ eight major postcode areas are in the top half nationally for miles driven.

This may be necessity overcoming the climate problems. Drivers in southern Powys are the most prolific, clocking up over 84,000 miles per vehicle, which is unsurprising, since it’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in the country with poor public transport.

It isn’t simply a rural thing, though – drivers in Newport also have much more heavily-used cars than average.

Image: Robin Wilde.

3. Good commuter rail might make a difference

The map shows that, generally, the closer you are to a major metropolitan area, the less you drive (unless you’re a cab driver).

Certainly Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester and the Home Counties have a halo of comparatively low mileage figures in their urban areas. Even accounting for the lower figures in Scotland, Glasgow has the fourth-lowest average car mileage outside London, at 65,842 miles – 10,000 below the national average – and is served by Britain’s second largest commuter rail network, after London.

Birmingham, on the other hand, is the exception among Britain’s biggest cities, and the West Midlands has higher-than-average figures everywhere except Dudley. As Tom Forth recently set out on this site, the public transport situation there leaves much to be desired, with long journey times impacting on productivity.

4. Amazon’s vehicle fleet is… odd

There are five UK postcodes that begin with the non-geographic XX. Three are reserved for Amazon distribution centres (two postcodes in Scotland, one in the south west), one for Boohoo, and one for ASOS. They’re typically used for customer returns, but there were also 2,552 MOTs carried out on vehicles registered there in 2017.

I’m no businessman, but I do question why Amazon, Boohoo or ASOS might need a 1962 model Heinkel Trojan 200, a strange bubble-shaped car that looks like something out of the Jetsons. It’s cream-coloured, naturally. Nor am I sure that a yellow 1969 Jaguar E-Type is an appropriate way to move parcels around.

One of the strangest entries is a 2011 Fiat 500 – an otherwise unremarkable car – which has somehow racked up 762,507 miles in a six year stretch. That works out at about 350 miles a day between it rolling off the production line and going for its 2017 MOT. Miraculously, it passed.

Google allegedly uses bike couriers to move hard drives around its datacentres, but the XX postcode area contains over 100 Vespa scooters, which is an impressive fleet by any standard. While it’s cliché to suggest that the strange activities of faceless corporations are inherently sinister, I think we deserve some answers. Seriously Amazon, what’s going on?


5. The West Country loves yellow cars

If you, like me, grew up with the game of Yellow Car, in which the first child to spot such a vehicle earns the right to punch others, you might want to stay out of Devon and ornwall. For some reason, five of the ten most yellow car owning postcodes are in the South West (Truro, Torquay, Plymouth, Exeter and Dorchester), and rates of yellow car ownership there can exceed 1 per cent. There isn’t any clear reason for this trend, unless the Lib Dem voting habits truly die hard.

Conversely, there are hardly any yellow cars in London: eight of the ten areas with least yellow cars are located there. You’ll see two and a half times as many yellow cars in Truro as in Ilford.

6. Londoners don’t drive, but taxi drivers make up for it

As you’d expect from a megacity with an extensive network of fast, reliable, integrated public transport, car usage in London is generally low. In fact, cars in Bromley are driven less than anywhere else outside the Amazon warehouses (61,526 miles on average). The West London, South West London and Kingston postcodes also make the bottom ten.

But that’s not the whole story – East London and Uxbridge are both in the top ten for mileage, Ilford and North London clock in fairly high, and a quick glance at the figures for car colour in those areas, which favour black far more than most places, suggests it’s the high concentration of taxi drivers. DfT statistics from 2017 suggest there are about 110,000 licensed taxi drivers in the capital, and some of them are pushing astonishing mileage figures: there were 201 MOTs carried out on cars with over 500,000 miles on the clock in East London alone.

7. Manchester likes to stand out

Manchester has a bit of a reputation in the North for showing off, with its musical heritage, popularity as a not-London business destination and subject of George Osborne’s devolution affections.

But its residents also have a penchant for more unusually-coloured vehicles. Mancunians have higher ownership of pink cars than anywhere else in the country (granted, it’s still only 0.09 per cent), and are tied for first with York for orange vehicles (about 0.75 per cent). Outside the yellow heartlands of the South-West, they also have the second-highest rate of ownership for yellow cars. They might still only make up about 2 per cent of the total, but they can rest assured they’re slightly more normal in Manchester than elsewhere.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.