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Guest Blog: A Finger In the Dyke?

Philip Gomm. Head of External Communications, RAC Foundation. 14 November 2012

Philip Gomm, RAC Foundation

The lot of the commuter is rarely a happy one. Often it is distinctly miserable. On the railways there are overcrowded trains and sky-high fare prices increasing above the rate of inflation. On the roads there are... well essentially the same things: jam packed roads and escalating running costs.

The political mood this week seems to suggest that the Chancellor has done a deal with his dissatisfied back-benchers and promised to abandon, or at least postpone, the 3p rise in fuel duty scheduled for 1 January 2013. As an electioneering gesture it might bring the Conservatives a brief fillip in the polls. As a meaningful way of stopping the surge in transport costs it is little more than a finger in the dyke.

The figures speak for themselves. In terms of weekly expenditure, the average household spends more on travel than any other single area, including domestic heating, food, mortgages and rent. At last count it amounted to £64.90 a week, 14% of the total. And that is for all households, whether they run a vehicle or not. Look solely at car-owning homes and the figure are higher still.

If fuel poverty – judged to be those families which spend more than 10% of their income heating their dwellings - is a widespread problem, then using the same yardstick transport poverty is much worse. And there is little prospect of things improving significantly whether or not there is a freeze in the rate of fuel duty. However we do have the potential to do things at the margins. Key amongst them is to alter our travel patterns.

Figures from the comprehensive National Travel Survey – which is carried out each year by the Department for Transport and relies on 20,000 individuals compiling a week-long record of how and why they get about – suggest almost a fifth of journeys, where the car is the main mode, are either for business or commuting. Looking at the same thing from a different angle reveals that 69% of all commuting trips are by car compared to 10% by foot and 8% by rail.

Even small changes in the way people get to and from their place of employment could make a noticeable difference not just for those who can alter their journey times or who might be able to work from home, but also those still forced to be at their desks during office hours and so having no alternative other than to endure rush-hour.

The issue is not that we don’t have enough road space, but rather that we all want to use it at the same time. Mornings are bad. So are afternoons, with Friday’s amongst the worst. As part of a study on congestion the RAC Foundation interviewed a selection of ‘typical’ drivers including a company rep from Birmingham who regularly plies the motorways of the West Midlands but essentially writes off the last day of the working week. Whilst Monday to Thursday he is prepared to put in many miles on behalf of his company, both it and he recognise that Fridays are the time to sit down and do the paperwork.

It is appalling that we have got to this position, with no top-down plan to deal with it. The Government does not propose – and we would not endorse – wide-scale road building. Nor are ministers prepared to countenance some sort of pay as you drive system which, through differential pricing, has the potential to spread the daily demand for tarmac space, and hence cut congestion and CO2 emissions (not to mention help the Treasury replace the forecast large decline in fuel duty revenue because of greener cars).

In fact ministers remain firmly tight-lipped about how they intend to relieve the traffic jams which have such a negative impact on the personal and commercial lives of Britons.

So, not for the first time, it is up to us to make the best of a bad job. We need to be smarter, make fewer journeys where we can and drive more conservatively when we do take to the roads. To sum it up in a couple of words, it is all about being ‘work wise’.

About The RAC Foundation

The Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring is a transport policy and research organisation which explores the economic, mobility, safety and environmental issues relating to roads and their users. The Foundation publishes independent and authoritative research with which it promotes informed debate and advocates policy in the interest of the responsible motorist.

In 2010/11 the Foundation undertook or commissioned more than a dozen pieces of research, relating to such matters as the legality of wheel clamping on private property, the way road accidents are investigated and the future administration of the road network.

www.racfoundation.org

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