Just as night follows day, you can guarantee that whenever someone puts forward the idea of increasing costs for drivers, an army of concerned motorists will suddenly leap to the defence of those on lower incomes.
We know that motoring is expensive, but what if you’ve been left with no choice but to drive? Is that really a thing and, what can we do about it?
How did we get here?
Without wishing to trudge through the same old arguments again, we’ve spoken at length about car dependency before. We’ve also talked about how life would have been before we started designing life around cars.
In short, we build suburbs on greenbelt land with no third place, patchy public transport and we place driveways and garages on each plot. Planning for cars just leads to even more cars.
Rather than the walkable, green, and sustainable places that both the Government and developers envisage for future living, new greenfield housing has become even more car-based than before and the trend has extended to surrounding areas, with out-of-town retail, leisure, food outlets and employment orientated around new road systems.Building Car Dependency – Transport for New Homes
Unfortunately, whether you are a carer or shop worker on minimum wage, or a premiership footballer, you’re going to pay market prices for your car; your insurance and your fuel. Sure, there’s a wide variety of cars out there, but if we assume that everyone is paying £388 per month (the average cost of a car), the lower your income is, the heavier that £388 is going to feel.
Yes, it is true that you don’t have to pay that £388 per month. When I passed my test in my early 20s I found myself in that awkward place between being able to finance a new-ish car, but the insurance would have been ruinous, or I could get an old banger worth a few hundred quid and just get to know the local garage very, very well. In the end I might as well have gone with the more expensive car because the old banger spent most of its life being repaired. It wasn’t so much £388 per month, but nothing one month, £800 the next.
However, I had been conditioned to think that passing my test and getting a car was all part of being ‘an adult’. In truth, it was the part of being an adult that people actually talk about –people don’t like talking about money, or the sheer amount of admin involved in just keeping a car going, because if they did we probably wouldn’t be having a car problem now. I was working in an office when I passed my test –an office that was very well connected to public transport. I really didn’t need one, but I wanted to fit in.
I suspect I’m not alone in that. It starts with wanting to fit in, or to keep up appearances with the neighbours. It ends with 40-mile commutes or just having to travel out of the neighbourhood to the closest thing some developments have to a village –an out of town supermarket with copious amounts of free parking.
When we talk about regressive taxes here, we’re really talking about ones that are fixed in price and don’t account for differences in income. If you set road prices, VED or fuel prices at X amount without means-testing, they will have a disproportionate impact on those with the lowest incomes.
In an ideal world nobody would need a car, but now we’ve had 70 years of car-centric planning, it has become somewhat self-fulfilling. Only those with the option to work remotely or to a schedule that can work around public transport feel as though they have the option to go without a car. These tend to be people in office jobs who would otherwise work close to the city centre where there are bus and train services.
Cars aren’t strictly speaking a tax, although they do incorporate many in the purchasing and owning of them. However, if you consider them vital to just getting by in the system we live in, they amount to one in the end –it just isn’t being collected by the government. Most of what drivers pay out every month is collected by the car finance companies, insurance companies, OPEC and every other part of the complex web that forms the motoring industrial complex.
Citizens Advice says ethnic minorities in England and Wales paid £250 a year more for their car insurance last year, with some paying up to £280 more. The findings are based on analysis of the cost of 18,000 car insurance policies reported to Citizens Advice by people using the charity for debt help in 2021.Ethnic minorities pay up to £280/yr more for car insurance than white people, says Citizens Advice
So, there are two questions to answer here. Is it true that charges which aim to reduce motoring disproportionately affect those on lower incomes? Well, yes, quite possibly.
If we take road pricing as an example, chances are that someone on minimum wage is going to pay just as much as someone earning twice as much for a given stretch of road. They’re also going to pay just as much to fuel their car and if the example above is anything to go by, car insurance companies consider more than just driving history, your age and the value of your car –even if they really shouldn’t.
However, the bigger question is why do people feel obliged to own a car when it is likely to be little more than a financial millstone around their neck? Road pricing may be the thin end of the wedge where regressive bills are concerned. Everything about the car is regressive –from purchase to scrap, everything along the way is disproportionately more expensive the lower down the income scale you are.
There is certainly an element of wanting to fit in –something I’m definitely guilty of. I do wonder whether our reluctance to be open about money is another part of it. If people talked more openly about how ruinous a car can be for your finances, people might be more inclined to give them a miss.
But there’s something else. In Michael Marmot’s article linked below, he talks about how a lack of income reduces a person’s intellectual bandwidth. By having to spend time worrying about how to make your money stretch to cover your basic needs in a world of rising costs, you’re unlikely to have the headspace to make good choices. As a result of the aforementioned car-centric planning and the under-funding of public transport that we’ve been seeing since the advent of the car, we now have a situation where people feel they have to spend what little they have on a vehicle to get to work, or to do their job.
The third issue is captured by the movement for universal basic services. If public transport were free at the point of use, if social housing were available and affordable, home heating affordable, nutritious food available without a cost premium, then relative lack of individual income would be less harmful for health. In the UK, public services were cut dramatically, and in regressive fashion, by a decade of austerity. The failure of allocations to public services to rise in line with inflation in the recent spring statement will mean further pressures on public sector pay and on the provision of public services.Studying health inequalities has been my life’s work. What’s about to happen in the UK is unprecedented | Michael Marmot | The Guardian
One thing we’ve also seen develop over the past few years is the explosion in jobs that don’t pay very well, or are on zero-hours contracts and require some sort of vehicle to get around —couriers & delivery drivers, domiciliary care work etc. This is work that has no guarantee of income in any given week, but you’re still required to pay for your vehicle whether you have hours on your rota or not.
How do we de-normalise the car without disproportionately affecting those who can least afford it? Honestly, I think this goes back to the old arguments of marketing the car-free life to counter the elaborate and often misleading car ads we’re bombarded with at every ad break.
We need glossy, captivating adverts where people have enough of a financial cushion to smooth out life’s bumps; of not fearing MOT time; of not having to worry about shopping around for car insurance every year; of not really caring that unleaded is at £2 a litre; of being able to read a book on the bus or train to the office. Yet this may only really help those who feel as though they already have the choice.
If people on the lowest incomes are expected to shoulder the cost of motoring just to get by, councils need to ask questions about why that is the case. Why are we still building suburban sprawl on green-belt land; why have we put all the “third places” in another district and not where people live? Politicians on either side objecting to congestion charging or workplace parking levies on the basis that it’ll disproportionately affect people on low incomes need to ask themselves why we have built a city that automatically puts them at a disadvantage because car ownership is ‘expected’.
Why have we made it so that getting into vast amounts of debt with car finance, credit cards and buy-now-pay-later schemes is incredibly easy, but actually saving and investing for the long term can be seen as difficult or opaque?
Alright, I know the answer to that one. In debt you’ll pay your lender anything from just over the base rate of interest to 25-30% annually, but you’re lucky to earn 0.6% from your cash held in a savings account. With a car, you’re looking at taking out a new loan every 5 years for something you’ll probably never really own, each one at around 6-10% APR.
We make companies a lot of money by not asking questions, but we give politicians a free ride by allowing mobility to be privatised, to be paid for by everyone regardless of means. Congestion charging isn’t the problem, it is and always was cars.