One of my photos

The price of petrol

May 22nd, 2008 · Posted by Skuds in Life/Politics · 6 Comments · Life, Politics

I can understand the concern about the price of petrol, I can even understand why there is practically hysteria about it. What I can’t understand is why there is not similar outrage about the price of public transport and why there has not been general mass protests about that as well, or even instead.

To put it all in some sort of perspective, at the moment the BBC and Guardian websites have headlines on their front pages like:

And the slightly more positive:

And all that is from the calmer, more objective sites. I dread to think what the Mail and Express are like.

The main headline of that last story from the Guardian was “Fuel costs 16p per mile. Why?” and it provoked some interesting and amusing discussions at lunch today, of which more later.

Now I don’t like to pay a lot for petrol any more than anybody else does, but one fact remains: it is still cheaper for me to run a car than to take the bus to work. I am taking into account the cost of tax, insurance, MOT, petrol and (this year) a £500 bill for servicing and repairs and still it costs me less to run my car than it would cost me to just take the bus to work every day! It would be even less if I only used the car for commuting and not for a few other local trips per week too.

Even with the recent price rises it is still cheaper for me to run a car, and it is a lot more convenient and faster. That can not be right. There is no personal incentive for me whatsoever to change to the bus. And this is not new. The high petrol prices are new and catching all the headlines but the rail and bus prices have been high compared to car travel for ages with hardly any interest.

The difference is that public transport does not have anything half as effective as the motoring lobby.

I’m not arguing, by the way, that fuel costs should be higher: just that even at current levels they are not as bad as rail and bus fares. I would argue to bring public transport prices down to the level of running a car rather than bring motoring costs up to the levels of public transport.

I know that I am not typical: my car has a small engine and is supposedly cheap to run. I only use it to go to work and I only work a few miles from home, but doesn’t that make me a prime candidate for taking the bus – or cycling, but that’s another story. The fuel cost for my motor is less than the 16p a mile figure quoted in the Guardian, but even so look at the public transport costs I could have instead.

As the crow flies I live about 3 miles from work, although its more like 5 miles by the route I take. To take a bus would mean a fare of £1.50. Each way. That is more like 50p a mile – three times more than the 16p a mile of average fuel costs. Before the recent round of increases it probably cost 4 times more to take the bus. Petrol would have to be something like £4 a litre to make it financially worth my while to take the bus.

Or how about the train? Last week I took a train from St Pancras to Three Bridges. That is about 25 miles I think. Maybe 27. The fare was £10.90. That is 43p per mile, still nearly 3 times the motoring (fuel) cost.

I was coming back from France, where I had taken an RER train from central Paris to Versailles which cost me 2.8 Euros. That works out at about £2.22 for 12 miles or about 18.5p per mile. Still a little more than the cost of fuel for a car but its in the same ball park.

The difference is that the French recognise the benefits of greater use of public transport and subsidise it enough to make it competitive with motoring on cost. They also tend to not live so far from work, which helps. And they are quite big on car-sharing – the ‘co-voiturage’ sections of our company bulletin boards are the largest and most active sections.

It would take a long time for our culture to change enough that people here get away from thinking that its sensible to live 100 miles from where they work and a long time to persuade those that live closer to choose buses and trains over cars – but making the trains and buses not 3 or 4 times more expensive than driving, and providing more route options would at least make it register as a viable alternative.

The wider benefits would be as great as they would be hard to quantify and so with current attitudes we are not likely to see any reasonable subsidies from government at any level or even from employers. (Mine provide free on-site parking but they would not, I am sure, give staff a bike or make a contribution towards fares at the same cost to them – but that’s as much a function of the tax regime as the company’s attitude)

So don’t give me all this ‘war on the motorists’ cobblers. Us motorists have been happy to see those who have no choice but to use public transport systematically pissed on for decades and now we are expected to pay a third as much per mile as they do we are kicking off. The word ‘systematically’ is deliberate. When the GLC actually did try to implement subsidised fares in London the Government of the day had the decision reversed through the law, and taxation and housing policies all encourage driving more than anything else.

I wonder though. If you did a venn diagram of those who exclusively use public transport and those who do not bother to vote, would most of the members be in the intersection? I can’t see any sort of change until those who are most affected by the outcome of elections stop being those least likely to take part. There is a huge untapped pool of people out there who do not realise how much potential influence they have.
One interesting thing is that we no longer hear the argument from the fuel strikes of a couple of years ago about how much cheaper petrol is on the continent. Remember all those stories about lorries filling up in France before coming over here? With the global price increases and the pound/euro rate their fuel now costs only a little less than ours (for unleaded that is). Where we do see the difference is in the cost of train tickets and probably bus tickets, but that isn’t generating a mass outcry for subsidised travel.

I think I will save our lunchtime flights of fancy about alternative fuels for a separate post.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • skud's sister

    Such a long post – I will just have a comment on the first bit and read the rest in a bit. Very rude, sorry.
    Firstly, you don’t seem to have taken into account the fact that most people have to pay to buy the actual car. Secondly, you don’t mention parking costs. It would cost me £3.70 a day to get a bus to and from work (and the ticket would be valid for the whole of West Yorkshire for the whole day) but I could park in a Bradford city centre car park for that amount for a day. If your workplace provides you free parking it is worth remembering that it is only free to you – I believe the average car parking space costs a company £700-£3000 a year. If they weren’t paying out all that money for you to park for free they could probably subsidise season tickets for public transport. Just a thought – now I’ll read the rest of the post and get back to you…

  • skud's sister

    I got a train from Bradford to Wickford before Easter (one-way) which cost me about £35 – not bad per mile. Your point about those who have to use buses and non-voters is interesting (although you do forget those who actually choose to use public transport – remember who it was who said any men over 30 using a bus was a failure…) and they are an unheard voice. This does also apply to your employer, however, as surveys have shown that about 65% of employers say that they would make ‘green’ changes if pressed by their workers – and a Mori poll found that 93% of consumers thought that companies should be held responsible for their environmental impact. That includes the CO2 produced by their employees commuting.

  • Rob Glover

    interestingly, the Thatcher quote that a man over the age of 26 using a bus can consifer himself a failure, may be apocryphal. It was allegedly said in 1986 but there is no contemporary Hansard cite anywhere and the quote didn’t surface in the press until long after she’d left office.
    It might be the equivalent of Dubya’s “The French have no word for Entrepreneur” which he also never seems to have said.

  • skud's sister

    You know that’s what she thought…… (in between thinking up ways to torture miner’s puppies).

  • Skuds

    I know I did not take account of depreciation or the cost of a car, but that is so variable. I said that my situation is not exactly normal. Had I not had a second car I would have continued to rely on a lift from Jayne – it would have been more convenient for me too, although it did involve her spending a long time sitting at my gates waiting for me to leave work.

    In my own particular circumstance I could as easily buy a car costing well under £500 just to go to work. If it reached the point that repairs were going to cost anything significant I could donate it to the fire station for practice and just buy another. I know someone who does that.

    That would actually work out cheaper than a ‘free’ car that had £500 worth of work needed on it, and still a lot cheaper than using my particular bus service.

    I think the original article concentrated on just fuel costs because of an assumption that if you want a car you will have one anyway. Another study I saw a few years ago reckoned that if you drive fewer than 6000 miles a year it would be cheaper to only use public transport and taxis – I think that went too far the other way and assumed the purchase of quite new and expensive cars where depreciation was a very large part of the annual costs.

    Parking is the what makes a large difference. When I worked in London I took the train by choice – although the economics made that cheaper. Congestion charge and the cost of parking in London alone would have been more than the price of the season ticket.

    For many people that isn’t a consideration though – if the company gives you a free parking place, provides a car and pays for its petrol why would you not use it?

    I think we have proved that we (society in general) will not change because of any higher reasons that do not have an immediate impact. So global warming affects individual decisions about as much as health warnings on fags stop anyone addicted to tobacco.

    Train or bus fares do depend on individual circumstances. In my case the bus fares work out so high because of the short distances. There is a fixed fare in town so it would be the same if the journey was a lot longer. Fare structures do not help for the shorter journeys. Its a bit like the tube/buses in London: a one-day travelcard is a real bargain of you are going to make several journeys – but if you only want to go a couple of miles there its really steep to get any sort of ticket.

    Season tickets help, and there are all sorts of offers for off-peak travel – of course commuters can’t take advantage of a lot of those.

    I think it is all down to incentives: at the moment there is no strong incentive to take public transport and in many cases there are financial incentives not to. If we are serious about reducing pollution then that is wrong. I can think of a few ways to change that and not a single one would be popular, so they will not happen any time soon.

    Rob – Bush may not have said “The French have no word for Entrepreneur” but I bet he wishes he had…

    Colleagues of mine at ICL had the same opinion that you should not be seen on public transport. I used to wind them up by asking in what way taxis and scheduled flights were not public transport.

  • skud's sister

    And just think of the kind of people who have been in the taxi the night before (you can still just about smell it under the tree air freshener) or the chavs on their way back from a stag night in Prague. The main problem is that we are all hugely selfish and believe that we are entitled to have our own metal box to travel in without having to interact with any other human beings.