Transport poverty is real, pervasive and must be tackled

Liz Thorne, policy adviser at Sustrans, examines whether a family car is a necessity or is transport poverty the real issue.


Liz Thorne is a policy adviser at Sustrans, the charity enabling people to make more of our everyday journeys by foot, bike and public transport

For the first time this year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated a car is a basic necessity for families to get by. I find this shocking. We have built a transport system that means if you don’t have a car you are unable to maintain a basic standard of living; families either have to fork out or face being cut off.

And for many, this financial drain is enough to send them into spiralling debt.

Today, Sustrans has launched research showing that 1.5 million people are already at serious risk of transport poverty – with 35 million likely to be affected as car costs and public transport fares continue to rise and the full impact of bus cuts is felt. That is more than half the population.

The research looks at those receiving income support – where owning a car would have the greatest effect; the number of people living more than a mile from their nearest rail or bus stop; and those who would need to take more than an hour to reach essential goods and services without a car.

This is mapped out by the Department for Transport, providing a clear picture of where transport poverty is hitting hardest:

The debate around transport is still seriously stunted. Many argue the only solution to transport poverty is to reduce prices at the pump – helping struggling motorists get by. Admittedly it’s an attractive offer, people would definitely like to spend less on filling up, but this approach is desperately short-sighted. Not only would it force government to take on another burden in a time of tight budgets, it also totally ignores those who simply can’t afford to drive a car at all, or can’t drive for other reasons. There are already millions of people in this position – two-thirds of jobseekers don’t have access to a car.

We’re not going to be able to address the crises we face – social exclusion, unemployment and rising health inequalities – without a transport system that allows access for all. And a transport system based on oil dependency is going to be bad for the environment and our economy.

Our report calls on the government to continue with planned increases in fuel duty, and to use this money to make public transport more reliable, efficient and affordable and to make our towns and cities safer for walking and cycling.

All too often we dismiss transport as a technical issue, leaving it to engineers to worry over and figure out, but the impact of transport on our daily lives is huge – affecting how we reach shops, jobs, friends and family. We must look at ways to minimise forced car ownership because that’s what it is – forced. Transport poverty is real, it’s pervasive and it must be tackled.

Sticking our head beneath the tarmac just isn’t an option.

Locked Out: Transport poverty in England, is available at

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