Eleanor Besley argues that we can't focus just on car drivers when it comes to transport policy - and that if we put all our effort on to fuel price, we risk subsidising the rich.
Earlier this week, Sustrans launched research showing that more than a million people in Wales may struggle to afford to run a car – and that a lack of alternatives is forcing many people to choose between getting into debt and being cut off from jobs, healthcare, shops and schools.
This morning the RAC Foundation launched a remarkably similar piece of analysis and used it to call for cheaper fuel across the UK. This ignores the fact that an increasing number of people are already excluded from car ownership as a result of extortionate costs.
Across the UK, transport poverty is a devastating reality for millions. Fuel prices are going up and will not be coming down. As the certainty of peak oil hits home, more and more of us will be priced out of car ownership and there will not be alternative options in place.
As things currently stand, car dependency is an assumed condition for the entire British population. This means that the transport system and spending on transport is focused on providing for car journeys. Those people who do no have a car often find themselves without public transport options and will no facilities in place for them to walk or cycle.
The government’s approach is unfair and outdated:
• About a quarter of households do not have a car
• Traffic figures for cars and taxis, which rose more or less every year since 1949, have fallen continuously since 2007.
• Over the last 20 years, 80-90 per cent of people have said they would find it very difficult to adapt to not having a car
• Over two thirds of car trips in Britain are less than 5 miles – many of these should be possible by public transport, on foot or by bike. Current transport funding does not seek to make this a reality.
Cutting fuel duty appears to makes sense in the short term, for car owners. But what about in years to come when the barrel cost of oil is itself so high that car ownership isn’t possible for anyone beyond the super rich?
We must invest now to ensure that large swathes of the population are not cut off from essential services, shops, education and employment when the inevitable happens.
The Welsh report, Access Denied, calls on politicians to recognise the complexities of and tackle the growing problem ‘transport poverty’. With a quarter of households in Wales having no car at all, and fuel costs set to continue rising, the report calls for more investment in alternatives such as public transport, car clubs and routes for walking and cycling.
The report is backed by Age Cymru, Citizens Advice Cymru, Save the Children and Sustrans Cymru who agree that without investment now, the problem will only get worse. The charities point out that many people in transport poverty aren’t just unable to afford a car, but also find it difficult to cover the costs of public transport.
Britain must see a transport system for all, not just for those who can afford a car.
One way to ensure we’re future-proofed would be to ring fence a proportion of fuel duty for spending on smarter travel (public transport, walking and cycling). In their 2010 report the Environmental Audit Committee recommended such an approach. This month’s response from government weakly refuted the idea without any argument.
The government revenue from Fuel Duty was £25.894 billion in 2009. Using just a small portion of the income from fuel duty to pay for alternatives to the car could help people to see that they were funding their own future.
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