Won’t road charging be unfair for people on low incomes?

One of the aims of the Greater Cambridge Partnership (GCP) proposed Sustainable Travel Zone is to help ‘address social inequalities where poor provision of transport is a contributing factor’, in particular by transforming the bus network and making bus travel much cheaper. The GCP notes that ‘some parts of Greater Cambridge and the wider travel-to-work area are being held back by a lack of any viable public transport. In some places, people are cut off from opportunities by poor public transport access or walk and cycle connections’.

Poorer households are less likely to own a car. In the 2011 census, data showed that a third of households in Cambridge did not own a car, or van and for single-parent families this was 42%.

For those without access to a car, choice and accessibility have been decreasing. Public transport costs have been rising much faster than the cost of driving since the turn of the century and a quarter of bus services have disappeared in the last decade. This is particularly problematic for low income households, who are much more likely to use the bus than other public transport modes. Meanwhile, increasing traffic on the roads is often a barrier to walking and cycling. You can read more about transport and inequality here.

The transformation of the bus network proposed by the GCP, funded by road charges in the Sustainable Travel Zone, will greatly benefit poorer households. At the moment, buses do not work well in many cases. The GCP’s proposals would solve this, and bring much more choice, cheaper fares, and more transport independence for people who do not own a car or would prefer to use a convenient bus.

As part of the new proposals, the GCP commissioned a detailed Equalities Impact Assessment. It concluded that the scheme would result in beneficial effects across most protected characteristic groups, including low-income households. The GCP also held focus groups with young people, disabled people and people on low incomes. All of these groups were unhappy with aspects of the existing bus service and wanted to see improvements to active travel. The GCP says some of the funding from the Sustainable Travel Zone could be used to provide more support for disabled users of public transport and support to access specialist and disabled cycles.

For drivers, a road charge is a more regressive transport measure than road closures, for example, as those on lower incomes bear a higher burden of the cost. However, providing roads for free is also not fair. Free roads could be seen to ‘help’ poorer households, but only after they have made large investments, both upfront and ongoing, in the depreciating assets that are cars. Furthermore, research has shown that people from lower-income groups are more likely to die in car crashes, live near polluted roads and suffer from decreasing levels of activity.

Road charge discounts, exemptions and reimbursements

The GCP has recognised that some groups will be less able to switch from driving than others and is proposing a range of discounts, exemptions and reimbursements to the road charge to address this. It says it will continue to develop details of these exemptions and discounts through the consultation process and will ‘engage with protected characteristic groups through the scheme design to obtain more granular information and create a more detailed understanding of the issues’. Low income households will have discounted public transport costs and potentially receive a 25-100% tapered discount.