By Darren Shirley, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport
Imagine not having any transport. No car, no affordable train service and no buses. How do you get to work, or to college or to medical appointments? For many people on low incomes this is all too common a reality.
According to the Office of National Statistics, households spend an average of £79.70 a week on transport, making transport the biggest household expense. For people on low incomes, the cost of transport is just one more expense that must be at best juggled, or at worst sacrificed. Whilst there is no official definition of transport poverty, or any agreed figures on the number of people affected, it is a problem more and more people and organisations are being to recognise.
Transport poverty is not simply a question of being able to own a car, combinations of poor transport provision, high fares and car-based housing and other developments, all contribute to creating social isolation and poverty. Nor is this just an issue for those without cars; those with access to cars find that they are forced to use their cars more than they want to, or more than they can afford to.
Lack of transport options impacts on people’s health and wellbeing, as well as their education and employment opportunities. A recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report looked at the transport issues facing out-of-work residents in six low-income neighbourhoods, including Harpurhey in Manchester. It found that ‘transport is a significant barrier to employment for many residents living in low-income neighbourhoods’ and ‘public transport is often seen as something which constrains, rather than enables a return to work’.
Last year we published our seventh annual Buses in Crisis report. It showed local authority supported services are at crisis point, with £172 million cut from bus budgets in England since 2010/11. Local authority bus spend in the North West region dropped more than a fifth (21.54 %) in eight years, with 77 bus services altered, reduced or withdrawn in the last year alone. The loss of a bus service can have a devastating impact on both individuals and whole communities, especially those on low incomes who are already disadvantaged.
Buses connect people to jobs, health services, education establishments and shopping and leisure facilities, not to mention enabling people to visit friends and family. When a bus service disappears, so does a person’s and a community’s only link to the outside world.
That’s why Campaign for Better Transport wants to see a national investment strategy for buses, like already exists for rail and roads, to ensure buses remain part of the public transport mix.
We also need to make sure public transport remains affordable. Bus fares are rising far higher than that of any other public transport mode, and far higher than the cost of car ownership. Even rail fares, which are rising less than bus fares but still higher than the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which is the official inflation figure used to calculate things like benefit increases, are an increasing unmanageable burden on people’s pockets.
One way the Government could help is to introduce a season ticket for part-time workers. Currently a season ticket offers a discount if used to travel for five days a week. If you work part time, or on a zero hours contract, or work part of the week from home because you have caring responsibilities, you must either choose to buy a season ticket and lose money on the days you don’t travel, or buy more expensive individual single or return tickets. We want to see more flexible ticket options which reflect modern working practices and don’t disadvantage people commuting less than five days a week.
Even people who do need to commute five days a week can find the cost of an annual season ticket too much to pay out in one go, meaning they are unable to take advantage of the discount offered by buying your year’s travel up front. Some employers offer season ticket loans which allow people to borrow the money for their annual ticket and pay it back in smaller amounts from their wages over the course of the year.
So far these type of schemes generally only apply to rail season tickets, but we’d like to see this extended to cover bus tickets as well. Low income families are more dependent than others on bus travel and the cheaper fare deals which involve paying larger lump sums are often unavailable to them.
Transport poverty, like other forms of poverty, does not just impact on the individual or their immediate family; it has far reaching consequences that affect whole communities, even whole regions of the country. Ultimately there is also
a national economic impact which should, if nothing else, spur the Government on to tackle the issue.