lifestyle politics transport

Don’t fall for the myth of ‘transport poverty’

Last week I wrote about budget season, and mentioned how the roads lobby come out to play around this time of year. Sure enough, today sees the RAC Foundation running its PR machines at full power, with their annual whinge about fuel duty and the cost of petrol. This year they’ve coined an eye-catching new term: transport poverty.

This is of course an echo of ‘fuel poverty’, which is when a household spends 10% or more of their income on energy. It affects the poorest most, as they often have substandard and inefficient housing and therefore live in cold homes. This in turn is a major source of excess winter deaths, and is particularly a problem among Britain’s low income pensioners.

So according the RAC (the Royal Automobile Club), you can apply the same logic to transport, which gives you the headline figure that 80% of us live in ‘transport poverty’. “Rightly, there is much concern about the four million households who need to spend more than 10% of their income to keep warm” says the RAC’s Stephen Glaister. “Yet this figure is dwarfed by the 21 million households which spend over 10% on transport.”

Press release away, and a quick Google search reveal how widely this little idea has been reported. But is this a genuine concept? Here’s household spending on transport broken down by quintile, according to the RAC’s own report:

  • lowest earning quintile spend 9% of their disposable income on transport
  • second quintile spend 11.5%
  • third quintile spend 13%
  • fourth quintile spend 14.5%
  • highest earning quintile spend 15.5%

Hang on a minute – if rich people spend more money on transport than poor people, how is this a matter of poverty? Surely it’s quite the opposite – it’s a problem of affluence.

This isn’t how energy poverty works. It’s quite clearly the poorest in society who suffer from cold homes and worry about whether they can pay their bills. That’s not the case for transport. It’s the richest who travel more, who own cars rather than ride the bus, who fly, and who therefore pay more in transport.

Heating your house is a necessity, like food and housing. This is not true of transport, which is much more to do with lifestyle choice, especially once you’re talking about car ownership. The RAC have lifted their figures from the government’s family spending survey, which graphically shows the difference between transport and real necessities:

As the graph shows, poorer households spend a higher percentage of their incomes on essentials. Transport isn’t in that category. It rises with income, like spending on recreation and culture, or restaurants and hotels – it is a matter of discretionary spending.

Let’s not be distracted by the percentages either. Just because you spend more than 10% of your income on something doesn’t mean you experience that expenditure as hardship. Every quintile spends over 10% on recreation and culture too. Does that mean we live in recreation poverty?

Even if transport poverty was a reality, the RAC are barking up the wrong tree when it comes to solutions. If they’re after cheaper transport for the vulnerable, they should be championing public transport. Instead, it’s clear where their interests lie: “The public finances are a matter for the Chancellor,” says Mr Glaister, “but when he makes decisions about the rate of fuel duty he must be aware of their impact on the 34 million people who drive.”

There’s no doubt running a car is expensive, but that doesn’t mean there’s such a thing as transport poverty. Don’t fall for it. It’s just the car lobby having its annual whinge.


  1. In Germany the car club, the ADAC, pulled the same trick with road pricing in cities, claiming that ‘Poorer people will be hit’ because they live in cities. Thing is, in German cities there’s a dense, high quality public transport network, so the less well off (like us) don’t use a car much because we don’t really need one. On the other hand we’d benefit from cleaner air in the cities.

    Meanwhile a lot of the cars driving through the city (alongside me, travelling in a fast, clean tram) are big, expensive and new, with registration plates showing they come from the suburbs.

    With ADAC stickers.

  2. It is absolutely a disgrace on our society that some people die from lack of warmth and it is right to bring it to our attention. But since we are questioning logic or falsification, please tell me – Does using 10% or more of your income on fuel for your home correctly classify a kind of ‘poverty’. If this is sufficiently true to warrant its use as valid criteria, it would surely mean that we need up to 90% of our income left over for other essentials. Is this true?

  3. Does the figure for % of income spent on transport include air travel? The press release says nothing about it, but it would help explain why proportional transport costs rise with income.

    ““Just like heating our homes, most of us have to spend money on transport. There is no choice. While savings can be made at the margins by making fewer journeys and combining those which are essential, people have no option other than to go to work, visit the supermarket, see the doctor and take the children to school. That means paying for transport.

    “The public finances are a matter for the Chancellor, but when he makes decisions about the rate of fuel duty he must be aware of their impact on the 34 million people who drive. It is true the cost of buying a car has fallen over recent years, but the cost of running one has soared. While most people can delay replacing their vehicle they have little or no choice about filling it with fuel, getting it taxed and insured, and keeping it maintained.”

    I really think they’ve shot themselves in the foot with this press release, or they should have, if journalists did more than regurgitate what’s given to them. Not only are the lowest income households spending less on transport (which, as Jeremy’s post makes clear, puts the lie to the claim about “poverty” and “essential transport”), but the massive gap in transport spending between households with and without a car indicates to me that cars are themselves part of the problem. If you’re in the bottom 20% and have a car, then you’re spending 17% of income on your car. If you’re in the bottom 20% and don’t have a car, then you’re spending significantly less than 9% of your income on transport (since 9% is the figure for lowest quintile with and without a car combined).

    1. Holidays are counted as part of the recreation and leisure subset, so I don’t think they’re included as transport. The cost of buying a car is though, and I think that’s part of it, rather than richer people actually driving further.

      If journalists stopped to think about this, you’re right, it would have been shot down or just ignored. Unfortunately journalists are lazy, and the story plays into the very popular tabloid narrative of motorist martyrdom.

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