Now the nights are drawing in and the air is chill, many of us stop going out in the evening and retreat to our front rooms to spend cosy evenings curled up with a book or stretched out in front of the TV. By the start of November, even the most miserly of penny pinchers has typically caved in to the need to put the central heating on. Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to be able to afford such a basic necessity as warming their own home.
Traditionally a household has been considered to be “fuel poor” if required to spend more than 10% of their total income on energy to maintain an adequate standard of warmth. According to the government’s Annual Fuel Poverty report, 2m UK households are currently living in fuel poverty: 10.4% of the population. Unsurprisingly, unemployed are worst hit with almost a third recorded as fuel poor. The inability to afford energy bills killed a staggering 10,000 Britons in last year.
While the UK’s rate of fuel poverty is unacceptably high, transport poverty should also be given attention. The 2m in fuel poverty is dwarfed by the 21m households that motoring lobby group the RAC reports spend more than 10% of their disposable income (as used to be the measure of fuel poverty) on transportation. According to the RAC, transport is the single biggest cost for the average household, at 14% of disposable income – with the majority of this being spent on owning and running a car. Those without a car make, on average, half the number of journeys.
As yet transport poverty has not been widely discussed, little research exists and there is no commonly accepted definition. It may be the case that simply transferring home energy costs to transport outgoings is the most appropriate means for tracking this phenomenon or there may be more sophisticated ways to measure it.
Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, combines three factors: time taken to access essential services; distance to the nearest bus or train station, and; family income. Using this rationale, they estimate half of the nation’s local authorities contain (mostly rural) areas with a high risk of transport poverty.
Countryside car dependency
Research from the Office for National Statistics shows that the UK’s poorest families (the lowest tenth of household incomes) spend 31% of their money on the purchase and operation of a car; a proportion that is rising each year as motoring costs increase.
Transport poverty is most pronounced in rural areas where owning a car is considered a necessity and not a luxury. These are areas of low population density, where jobs and services will typically be located a long way from homes. With generally inadequate public transport and long distances making walking or cycling impractical, cars can be the only option for those living in our villages and hamlets.
For those living in rural parts of the UK, transport poverty is already a major issue. Research into commuting habits from the RAC show much more need for cars in rural areas. More than half of urban commuters walk or cycle rather than drive but just 31% of rural dwellers could do this. Public transport is easily available in cities and towns but rare elsewhere. And unfortunately for rural dwellers fuel is more expensive in the countryside, adding to an increased cost of living.
Taking transport poverty seriously
There is, then, a rural transport problem that needs to be taken seriously. As fuel poverty begins to move onto the political agenda, we must hope that similar happens for transport poverty.
Our presumption for private vehicle ownership is clearly unsustainable in environmental terms: though more efficient petrol and diesel engines still belch out toxic fumes, while even electric cars largely rely on fossil fuel power stations.
Transport poverty shows that our obsession with owning and running cars is not socially or economically sustainable either. Those who are young, elderly, unemployed or in poorly paid work risk being locked out of ordinary society simply because they cannot afford to buy into the car system. Many of those that have enough money for a car will find it a burden that means they are priced out of other activities.
In particular, rural communities risk decimation as people need to move away and what remains is a two tier society: the affluent that enjoy full access to 21st century society and an underclass that are left behind. We need to move beyond the current car system and perhaps rural car clubs with collective ownership and shared vehicles offer a way forward.
Daniel Newman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.