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The Tory War on Public Transport

Record fuel prices have left millions struggling to pay for travel. Public transport can be the alternative – but only if years of Tory privatisation and underfunding are reversed.

Public transport not only suffers from chronic underfunding, it has been devastated by privatisation and deregulation. (Ungureanu Vadim / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Fuel prices in the UK have hit record highs. The soaring cost of motoring will worsen the cost-of-living crisis and deepen already stark inequalities, demonstrating the urgent need to change how we travel and who pays.

Prices at the pump were skyrocketing even before the economic turbulence created by the war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia—Europe’s biggest supplier of oil—drove up wholesale oil prices, causing petrol to rise to £1.66 a litre for the first time, while diesel reached £1.77 a litre, more than fifty percent higher than just two years ago.

Transport Poverty

Such steep price increases would hurt household budgets at any time, but especially so when working people are experiencing falling real wages, tax hikes, rising food costs, and soaring energy bills. To make matters worse, decades of transport policy decisions have left Britain’s population particularly vulnerable to rising diesel and petrol costs.

The UK is one of the most car-dependent countries in Europe, meaning that people are reliant on their cars for travel and are without alternatives. The lack of good public transport along with poor walking and cycling options has left the country’s thirty-three million car owners particularly exposed to the financial shock of record-high fuel prices.

The impact of the rising cost of motoring will not be felt equally. Driving is disproportionately expensive for the poor, who spend a much greater proportion of their income on vehicles they can ill afford to run. The poorest ten percent of households spend almost a quarter of their disposable income on motoring, twice the national average. Around seven percent of UK households can be considered ‘forced car owners’, meaning they own a car despite being in absolute poverty. This all means that the most severe impacts of spiking fuel prices are faced by those on low incomes, who already spend a high share of their income on running vehicles.

Being forced to choose between heating and eating is an all-too-familiar hardship faced by working people. Rising fuel prices now mean the choice for many will be between heating, eating, and travelling. Millions of households will face worsening transport poverty, and will struggle or be unable to make the journeys they need. The consequence of this is social and economic isolation, with individuals unable to access essential services such as work and healthcare appointments and having to forgo visits to friends or family.

The War on Public Transport

High levels of car dependency that leave working people exposed to rising fuel costs are not an inevitability; they are the result of bad public policy. For years, governments have sought to keep down the cost of motoring while driving up the cost of public transport above the cost of living, thus creating an incentive to drive. The result of this war on public transport is that car dependency has reached a fifteen-year high.

Public transport not only suffers from chronic underfunding, it has been devastated by privatisation and deregulation. Control and ownership of buses and rail was gifted to the private sector, resulting in fragmented and poorly run services that have prioritised shareholder profits over the provision of a public service. The damage can be seen most clearly with Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of bus services, which allowed private companies to hike fares, pricing passengers off the network and causing a spiral of decline. Since deregulation, fares are up 403 percent and ridership outside of London (the only city to resist deregulation) has plummeted by thirty-eight percent. Three thousand local-authority supported routes—those that are socially important but not commercially profitable—have been slashed in the past two decades, creating ‘transport deserts’ across the country.

Successive governments have been able to encourage car dependency while ignoring its economic, social, and environmental harms at a time of relatively low and stable oil prices. This is no longer sustainable, especially as the government is pledging to end dependency on Russian fossil fuels. The Prime Minister failed to even mention transport –the sector of the UK’s economy that consumes the most oil–when addressing ‘energy security’ in his recent speech to Conservative spring conference. If ending our reliance on imported oil is to be effective, we must reduce our dependence on motoring, to prevent one form of fossil fuel dependency being replaced by another.

Tax cuts to lower fuel costs, which are rumoured to be included in the spring statement later this month, might be necessary as temporary emergency measures. But to ease the cost of living crisis and enable households to become more resilient to volatile fuel prices, we need more fundamental changes in how we travel and who pays.

Ending Car Dependency

The first step to ending car dependency should be to stop making it worse. This means an end to planning new housing developments around car use to the exclusion of sustainable transport, and scrapping the environmentally destructive and traffic-inducing £27 billion road building programme. This money must be put to better use. Investment in the most overlooked but cheapest forms of transport—cycling and walking—would be a far more worthy alternative.

Not only is public transport more economical than motoring, its costs can be more easily socialised through general taxation. Building good public transport networks would reverse the current situation created by car dependency where the cost of travel is disproportionately high for the poor.

In the short term, people need immediate support to prevent worsening transport poverty. New Zealand’s government announced that bus fares are to be halved—an example that should be followed and expanded on in Britain by restoring routes and bringing bus companies back under public control. The recent decision to hike rail fares by the highest amount in nine years should be reversed and replaced with a fares-freeze to help make rail travel affordable.

The longer-term solution is public ownership and control of transport, coupled with investment to expand and improve bus networks and the railway, including reopening branch lines and improving services. We must also accelerate the transition away from diesel and petrol and towards electric vehicles, bringing forward the 2035 phase-out date for fossil fuel car sales.

Spiking fuel prices require drastic action to avoid deepening the cost of living crisis, and worsening inequality; yet, this also presents an opportunity not only to make us more resilient in the future but to create a more fair and just society—but only if we organise and fight for it.