Car-centric approaches still dominate – and won’t solve the crises we face

This article was published in 2022, in Magazine 156.

Josh Grantham
Josh Grantham

In June, the cost-of-living crisis continued to bite, inflation hit 9% and fuel prices climbed higher. One of the key news items was that the UK competition watchdog was being asked to conduct an urgent review into whether the 5p fuel duty cut was being passed on to motorists. Which made me think, couldn’t the money have been better spent? Is 5p less on a litre of fuel really a way out of the cost-of-living crisis? Is solving the cost-of-living crisis not compatible with solving the climate crisis?

The fuel duty cut was announced in the chancellor’s spring statement in response to the cost-of-living crisis, yet it seems absurd to me that the government thought it appropriate to propose this when it is known that many of the most vulnerable households would not benefit. For instance, we know that young adults are the least likely to own a car and are the UK’s lowest paid, with averaging annual earnings of £12,275, and that a third of the poorest households have no access to a car, rendering this intervention valueless to millions.

Specialized encourages motorists to consider switching to e-bikes using ads on petrol pumps in Bristol. (Image: Adam Tranter / Fusion Media).

Yet I read calls for even more to be done to support drivers, calling for an increase to 10p, saying that it would help the economy. But we know this to be untrue. A perennial complaint from drivers is that they are the ones footing the bill, yet when we factor in the knock-on costs of the car, driving is subsidised by society.

It may be a tough pill for many to swallow, but reductions in fuel duty won’t help anyone in the long run and don’t even seem to be working in the short term. We cannot afford to bear the brunt of a car-centric society any longer: this is the time to change behaviour and encourage sustainable travel.

HMRC has indicated that the cost of implementing the 5p fuel duty cut for this year is £2.385 billion. To put that in perspective, the UK government currently allocates £400 million a year to active travel. So, we could instead double active travel spending for five years. Alternatively, a similar sum would cover the cost to HMRC of cutting VAT to zero on new bike sales for about ten years. What about making public transport a more attractive option? Germany saw the energy crisis as an opportunity to encourage people to use their cars less and public transport more by introducing a flat-rate monthly ticket for €9, available for the next three months, at an estimated of cost of €2.5 billion.

The government’s choice to reduce fuel duty and not tackle active travel or public transport is short-sighted, inequitable and car-centric. This approach continues to govern so much of our policy at the national and local level. For instance, in recent weeks, I have been reviewing the GCP’s latest consultation on the ‘road hierarchy’, something we have long called for and which is much needed. Yet when you dive into the details and read beyond the introduction of ‘people first’, you find the same old core priority, how can cars travel around the city.

This is an important and challenging issue, but one that can only be discussed after considering people walking, cycling, and using public transport. Our street hierarchy must prioritise the most vulnerable if we want to create people-centric streets.

Josh Grantham is Camcycle’s Infrastructure Campaigner. This article was originally published on 22 June in the Cambridge Independent, which features a monthly column by a member of the Camcycle team.