As a parallel to fuel poverty, where the cost of heating and lighting accounts for 10% of a household’s income, the RAC Foundation has suggested a similar idea of transport poverty. And while Britain’s rate of fuel poverty is high – at five million households, only Estonia is higher – this is dwarfed by the 21m households that spend more than 10% of their income on transportation. In fact, for the average household transport is the single biggest cost.
According to research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, this issue is particularly heightened in rural areas, where a lack of transport can be a serious problem. Here, public transport provision is piecemeal, so restricted as to be inadequate, frequently expensive, and a major barrier to accessing public services, employment – even social contact.
At the same time, many essential services are spread out in such a way that walking or cycling is arduous or impossible – running a vehicle is all but essential. In the face of all this, the study found that the more remote the location, the greater the expense of running a car. A minimum standard of living is said to cost £14,400 a year in cities, £15,600 in a rural town, £17,900 in a village and £18,600 in the most remote hamlets or countryside.
A recent report from Sustrans suggests residents of rural areas in at least half the UK’s local authorities are at high risk of being cut off from jobs, healthcare and leisure facilities. So transport poverty leaves behind those who cannot afford to run a car; social mobility requires automobility. According to the RAC, in rural areas 79% of journeys are by car, compared with 65% nationally, with rural mileage reaching on average 8,450 miles per year, compared to an average of 5,551 miles per year overall.
Being so dependent on it, those in the country will persist with their cars for longer in the face of rising costs – because they have to, in many cases for the most essential work and shopping. Urban drivers on the other hand feel much more able to jettison the car if they feel it over-stretches their finances, given their city advantages of frequent buses, or journeys within range of walking or cycling, and all without loss of services. Faced with cost that can’t be met, rural drivers are faced with a Hobson’s choice of uprooting and moving to the city, or putting themselves in financial dire straights.
Country car sharing
These facts makes it all the more satisfying that this month the pioneering rural car club run by Talybont-on-Usk Energy reaches its fourth birthday. The group, which has been involved since 2006 in local sustainability projects such as hydro-electricity generation, calculated that personal transport accounted for 40% of their carbon footprint. Because of the isolated location of the village and the distances that must be travelled to do pretty much anything, they found nearly every household owned a car (and many ran two or more).
It is generally assumed that car sharing schemes operate in urban areas where it is a means to reduce traffic and pollution. But using money generated from the community hydro-electric scheme, the group bought two vehicles to set up their own, countryside service: an electric van, christened Huelwen (“sunshine”), and a diesel car nicknamed Mr Chips, on account of how it can be run on recycled vegetable oil collected from local cafes and pubs.
In a village of fewer than 300 households 15 households are taking part, with charges set to ensure the vehicles’ insurance, maintenance, fuel and electricity costs are covered. While costs may be roughly comparable to running a privately owned car for the same journey, that it can be hired by the journey and without the additional risks and responsibilities of long-term ownership gives access to people that could not otherwise afford to buy and maintain one themselves. Though no users have yet been able to give up running a car, the potential of such a scheme is clear. With an electric car, the club also provides a form of sustainable mobility typically considered prohibitively expensive to buy.
While not an answer to rural transport poverty, this model provides residents with a socially sustainable, environmentally sustainable, affordable access to transport and the benefits that come with it. This is a straightforward model that could be adopted in more rural communities, provided adequate funding sources can be drawn upon, as has happened in other Welsh regions such as Pembrokeshire. These are grassroots projects, showing that approaches to sustainability often emerge from ordinary people working together.
More than one way to reach the shops
There are other models that include roles for commercial operators and the public sector. Car hire schemes are increasingly popular, with firms such as Zipcar reaching the UK, and new players such as E-Car with providing entirely electric fleet. Though typically located in big cities, these firms have recognised the demand from isolated rural residents. Also in Wales, car pooling has seen huge growth, measured by the success of services such as carpooling.co.uk.
The RAC Foundation has called for more support from the public sector. Subsidies would recognise that car hire is typically used by the more affluent while the less well off need it most. But also public involvement could properly integrating hire schemes with public transport.
When local stories about rural bus cuts make the national press, it’s clear there’s a problem. Imaginative solutions such as the on-demand bus service are promising but need to be complimented by some form of shared car scheme, at least for the time being.
It’s important that this issue rises up the agenda. Like fuel poverty, transport poverty should not be allowed to blight people’s lives. The automobile was supposed to liberate, not enslave us, so we must work harder to ensure that the system of cars and roads we appear wedded to works for the benefit of all.