Whilst I’m trying to avoid writing articles that focus on current affairs and will age badly, at the time of writing discussions around road pricing have come up again.
It’s an issue that crops up periodically and it is probably something we should discuss.
Whilst drivers will bleat about “the war on the motorist” from time to time, the unfortunate truth is that the cost of motoring –at least when you ignore the sunk cost of actually acquiring a car, servicing it and writing off the epic depreciation, has been pretty flat for many years. Fuel duty has been frozen for as long as I can remember and it doesn’t look like increasing any time soon.
If you look at the yellow line (all motoring) relative to the red line (average wages), you can see it has been growing more slowly, but petrol has actually become cheaper over time. Anecdotally, when I passed my driving test, LRP (my first car didn’t run on unleaded…) was 77p a litre, so it’s only gone up a few pence in 20 years.
So, the average trip by car is going to be cheaper than taking the train or the bus, because the sunk cost of acquiring the car has been brushed under the rug and petrol has only been getting cheaper, relatively speaking. Road pricing will add a cost to the average trip over and above the cost of fuel.
As such, most road pricing schemes formulate charge rates based on the total distance travelled, the time of road use, and the social and environmental implications of using the road at a given time.Road Pricing – All you need to know – Politics.co.uk
However, one thing I find particularly irksome is the suggestion that road pricing will hit the poorest in society. Whilst a trip in a car is currently cheaper than the equivalent trip on the train, we really can’t afford to ignore the cost of the car in the first place.
The true cost
It is unfortunate that for decades we’ve been designing our cities around cars. We’ve been building things further and further out; providing for the needs of motorists before all else and actively encouraging people to take on eyewatering amounts of debt just to be able to get by. We have effectively turned cars into £25,000 shoes that wear out every three to five years.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not someone who was born championing the bicycle –I arrived at it after nearly two decades of driving, debt and expensive repairs and realising that owning a car was making me really unhappy and crucially, skint. The cost of the average car, as we’ve discussed on a few occasions, is around £388 per month. For that you get 3-5 years of relatively trouble-free motoring (you hope) before the warranty expires and you can expect to start paying some scary repair bills come service and MOT time.
If you’ve had the foresight to squirrel money away these bills shouldn’t be too much of a bother, providing lady luck is with you, but it could well wipe you out at a time you can least afford it. Either that or you need to replace the car when the warranty expires and continue paying the monthly fee for the rest of your adult life to continue being a part of society.
This might be OK whilst the economy is functioning, but as we saw during the pandemic, sometimes entire industries shut down and paying £388 per month is going to be a really big problem.
So, will the poorest in society be hit hardest by road pricing? The ones that own cars, probably yes, but the bigger issue here is that the poorest in society feel as though they have to own a car. Those in traditionally blue-collar industries are those least likely to be able to work from home and therefore need to travel to the work site, factory etc, usually on a secluded industrial estate miles out of town.
Those that can get by without a car will arguably be more financially resilient, won’t have to worry about big unexpected repair bills and can put that £388 into something more productive, but we need to get to the point where people feel able to live without a car first.
We need to be up front about the true cost of owning a car; we need to plan our cities around walking, cycling and public transit first and foremost. We need to stop building massive housing estates miles from anywhere without putting the non-car travel options in first; and we need to build around villages with amenities that people can rely on.
Perhaps then people won’t feel the need to sink a significant portion of their income on something that will be quite literally worthless in less than a decade and can instead build towards their futures.