Cycling and Justice

“The richest 10%… emit nine times more carbon than their share.”

This was reported in a recent BBC News article, highlighting the great disparity between the richest and poorest around the world – I know, nothing new. But it played into something I’ve been mulling for a while: that the way our transport systems are structured increases disadvantage and injustice.

The BBC article starts by looking at the lifestyle of an apparently ‘normal’ American woman, who has 3 cars in her household – probably like many people in the UK. One per adult. It then draws attention to an English teacher called Togonin Severin Togo in Kati, Mali. Togonin’s life is quite different – “Like 80% of people in the world he doesn’t have a car – he travels to work on his moped.”  “like 90% of people around the world – he’s never been on an aeroplane.” Let that sink in. 80% of people don’t have a car. 90% have never been on an aeroplane.

A ‘normal’ Western person, with one car per adult. Compared to 80% or people in the world who own zero cars.

In the UK that figure flips on its head. An RAC Foundation report from 2008 (a bit old I know, so if you have more recent figures then do share in the comments) reckoned that Over 77% of households in Great Britain have a car and because car-owning households tend to have more than one person (most non- car owning households are single person households) the number of people with access to a car in the house is 81% of the total population.”

Running a vehicle is a major contributor to the carbon emissions from most households – not just the exhaust fumes, but also the emissions at the point of manufacture. Electric cars are making this better, but even with this technological advance our love affair with convenience and personal freedom comes at a cost. The fact that some people are wealthy enough to pollute in this way (to their benefit) while others have to manage without is the first level of injustice – everybody breathes dirty air, but only some people get to travel with comfort, convenience and ease. I feel this every day when I’m cycling down our relatively quiet roads, breathing in the exhaust fumes of the cars around me – I add nothing to air pollution in Bridlington, and probably get a bigger dose of it than most drivers. It tastes yucky.

The second level of injustice is what has been bothering me more though. It is about how our whole transport system is structured. In the UK for years – decades – our transport planning has been based on the assumption that everybody will be driving. Distances have been stretched, supermarkets and shops moved out of town centres to places often only accessible by road – a world designed for cars. In Bridlington the hospital has been cut back again and again so now for most things you have to travel to Scarborough, Hull or York – at least 40 minutes by car, far longer without. And public transport has been starved of resources and consistently mismanaged.

If the RAC report figures are right (or even close) then for 81% of people this isn’t a major problem – but that means that 19% of people are at a big disadvantage.

This is where I enter assumption and guess work – feel free to disagree or correct me! But I assume that for most people in the UK who don’t have access to a car that is probably not a choice, and that for many people it is because of limited finances. I also strongly suspect that many people who do own cars can’t really afford it – that the expense of running a vehicle is a very heavy burden. But what choice do they have? Even in a small town like Bridlington the roads are not friendly to cyclists, travelling by foot is hard work or not possible. Bus services are better in bigger towns and cities, but here they are sporadic and expensive.

And once you try to go out of town you find that trains are often prohibitively expensive and not especially convenient. Some friends recently shared that they have had to decline an invitation to a wedding because they couldn’t afford the several hundred pounds it was going to cost for return tickets to London… In our household we can afford it (largely because until recently we were paying for a car!), but the network connections are a total pain.

Structuring our towns, cities and connecting transport networks to prioritise car travel is an injustice – it favours the wealthy and directly restricts those who are not, increasing disadvantage and social exclusion. Restructuring our transport networks to prioritise cycling and public transport is a justice issue which everyone – car owners or not – should get behind.

(10minutes on Google later…)

And OH MY GOODNESS LOOK WHAT I JUST FOUND. A Government Office for Science report from 2019 called Inequalities in Mobility and Access in the UK Transport System, which says:

“There is an urgent need for policies to more explicitly recognise the important social value of transport. Public transport service limitations, combined with largely unregulated land-use development are driving a mobility culture that most advantages already highly-mobile and well-off sections of the population, while worsening the mobility and accessibility opportunities of the most socially disadvantaged in the UK.”

It’s hard being right sometimes.

Published by oikoslife

I am married, father of 2 young children (2014 and 2017), pioneering priest in the Church of England, surfer, climate activist and much more. Born in Yorkshire, and currently living on the Yorkshire Coast. Doing my best to live in good connection with God, self, neighbour and creation - working it out as I go.

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