When the UK slipped back into a ‘double dip’ recession in early 2011, Chancellor George Osborne was quick to blame the weather. It had been the coldest December in 100 years the MP for Tatton said, before citing the Office for National Statistics’ view that the fall in GDP had been caused by the “terrible weather in December”. Osborne’s words were reminiscent of those issued by Gordon Brown when Prime Minister in April 2010, when he too ascribed a meteorological justification for disappointing economic figures.
It seems that shrugging shoulders and pointing skywards is an natural reaction of British politicians when hoping to imply that disappointing developments are beyond their control. I was reminded of both Osborne and Brown’s reactions last week, when the Department for Transport said that a 2.3% decrease in car traffic was due to “heavy snowfall and icy conditions” across the UK.
While weather conditions undoubtedly do affect the amount that people drive, there are perhaps more substantial factors at play. In our report Locked Out, last year, Sustrans demonstrated just that 1.5 million people in England alone are currently at risk of transport poverty. The cost of running motoring has already ensured that a quarter of households and two-thirds of job-seekers have no access to a car, and those who can afford to own a car are cutting down on journeys because of cost. Tragically, because there aren’t other options for getting around, many households are unable sufficiently to access healthcare, education, shops or jobs – particularly concerning at a time when we are trying to sustain an economic recovery.
With oil prices only going in one direction from now on, it’s vital that UK governments provide alternatives to driving. Wherever possible locally, we should ensure journeys can be made by foot or bike, but for longer distances particularly it’s vital that public transport is both accessible and affordable. It’s vitally important that government works with providers to create better, more frequent bus services based on need with flexible routes, and work with transport authorities to analyse public transport demand in their area and develop local transport plans that provide integrate services for passengers travelling by rail, bus, bike or on foot. We need simple, affordable and consistent fare offers for children and older people and should extend smart ticketing (like Oyster cards) in urban areas beyond London. Existing public transport subsidies, such as the Bus Services Operators Grant, should also be refocused on socially-necessary and non-commercial services.
A spot of snow might always affect the amount people can drive – although providing options other than driving would help reduce its impact. But it’s the price of driving – and lack of alternatives – that is most drastically affecting the extent to which people can move around, and we need investment in public transport, walking and cycling to keep Britain moving whether the snow falls or not.
Photo: Internets Dairy