Is there such a thing as transport poverty?

In the forthcoming London Mayoral Elections, one of the issues dividing Boris Johnson from the other candidates is that of fares on London’s public transport system. Ken Livingston has pledged to cut fares by 7% should he be elected or stand down in October if this is not done. Livingston intends to do this using TFL’s operating surplus which Johnson contends is not possible and that the surplus needs to be retained for capital expenditure purposes.

Personally, I do not agree that public transport costs in London are high, but that’s because I compare them to other parts of the country. I come from Lancashire and when I get the bus from Manchester to visit my family, it costs £4.00 cash each way. I can reduce the cost to £3.20 if I book a day’s bus pass when I book my train tickets as the PlusBus scheme operates in the Greater Manchester area. Compare this with a cash fare of £2.30 for any bus in London, or £1.35 on Oyster, and one can see we get a good deal down here. However, where we do not compare favourably is with cities where the public transport system is heavily subsidised. So in Paris, Berlin, and Barcelona for example, one expects to pay less than €2 for most journeys, regardless of the mode of transport.

The suggestion has been made to me that as with most costs, rises in fares hit the poorest hardest, something which I agree with. As a researcher in the general field of energy, I am familar with the term fuel poverty, i.e. spending more than 10% of a household’s income on heating. So, I decided to do some rough calculations to see how this compared with transport costs.

If we were to assume that the lowest paid workers in London are on the London Living Wage of £8.30 per hour and work 37.5 hours per week, their income, net of tax and national insurance, would be £257 per week. A weekly Zone 1-3 travelcard at £34.20 would therefore be 13.3% of their net income. Alternatively, a weekly Zone 1-6 travelcard at £53.40 would be 20.8% of their net income. However, many workers don’t receive the London Living Wage, and the National Minimum Wage is £6.08 per hour. This pushes a Zone 1-3 travelcard to 17.1% of net income, and a Zone 1-6 travelcard to 26.6% of net income. Furthermore, if the lowest income workers are weekly, paying for a monthly travelcard, which is cheaper and would therefore reduce the burden of transport, is not an option. A worker on the London Living Wage who lived in Zone 3 and was able to purchase an annual travelcard would still be using 10.2% of their income to pay for travel.

On the basis of these rough calculations, one could indeed suggest that there is such a thing as transport poverty, and no doubt this is not confined to London where transport costs are actually quite low in comparison to much of the country. However, I do still find difficulty with Livingston’s pledge to use TFL’s operating surplus to reduce fares because, as a student of business and management, I understand the need for financial prudence and retaining an operating surplus in the event of either unexpected expenses or a shortfall in income. The most obvious solution is to do what many other cities continue to do, i.e. subsidise public transport. As the Congestion Charge contributes to TFL’s budget, my personal preference would be for extending the Congestion Charging zone and increasing the Charge itself, using the increased income to subsidise public transport costs.

Alternatively, one might follow my example and buy a bike. I cycle from West Norwood to Moorgate in around 45 minutes which is faster than any mode of public transport can get me there. Bonus!

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It occurred to me after I posted this blog to see if anyone had already raised the question of transport poverty, and indeed they have. So, I make no claim to originality of the term and here are some links to other articles on this matter:

Charities report highlights Wales ‘transport poverty’ as a million struggle to run cars or afford public transport

Four in five households lives in ‘transport poverty’

21 million households in transport poverty

Decarbonisation of transport in the urban setting

The electrification of transport is a key element in reducing carbon emissions when matched with a transition to low carbon means of generating electricity (because after all, electric cars are only as green as the electricity which powers them). The future of the grid is seen as one where car batteries act as storage points when there is surplus generation from renewables, e.g. wind energy overnight.  By charging at off-peak times, they are also a way of improving security of supply as we can do away with adding extra generating capacity which might be necessary if we were all charging our cars during peak, daytime hours. During the day, some electricity can be drawn back off the car battery to help balance out peaks in demand, further avoiding the need for additional generating capacity.

At last week’s Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy dissemination conference, I was once again struck by talk of decarbonising the economy by increased electrification of transport which appears to gloss over a key problem in the urban setting. For many of us in cities like London, where would we plug our car in? As there are very few properties that are owned from top to bottom with off-road parking, having a personal charging point could potentially be difficult to implement. Roughly 11% of the UK’s population lives in London which also owns about 9% of cars on the road. Taking this further, approximately 12 million people, or 20% of the population, live in the ten largest cities of the UK. If one assumed car ownership in cities was similar to that in London, I estimate that it would be difficult to charge around 15-20% of UK cars at home. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like such a troublesome figure, and after all, this is simply the rough calculations of someone who doesn’t know a huge amount about the field. However, those cars are also driving in the areas of heaviest pollution where it would be preferable to reduce street level emissions in addition to the more vaunted goal of reducing national carbon emissions.

Having focussed on the commercialisation of fuel cell technology for my PhD thesis, I am continually wondering why the technology seems to be omitted from much of the low carbon energy policy that I read. Granted, the technology is still expensive, but by all accounts, it works. In the transport setting, running fuel cell cars on hydrogen has the benefit of following a similar infrastructure set up to that which we already know, i.e. filling up at the petrol station. Hydrogen as a fuel also has practically zero harmful emissions. Centralised storage and distribution of hydrogen does away with the need for individial charging points. Whilst much of the current hydrogen supply is created from natural gas, therefore still resulting carbon emissions, it is possible to create it from renewables. This could the same overnight supply which we would charge batteries with, as Siemens has recently announced it is doing. A hydrogen infrastructure would also mean that we needn’t worry about running out of juice part way through a car journey as many fear with electric vehicles (although battery life has improved dramatically in recent years).

I’m not trying to say that hydrogen and fuel cells are a panacea. Indeed, I have always been concered that whilst fuel cells are far more efficient at using natural gas, the fact is that whilst we still use natural gas, we still have the carbon emissions. But it bothers me that one technology appears to be being ignored, and it is even one which the UK has expertise in. Our own Intelligent Energy has produced a number of fuel cell vehicles including Black Cabs which will be used for the London 2012 Olympic Games. And there are others out there in the UK including Ceres Power, ITM Power, and ACAL Energy. So, surely it’s time for the UK Government’s rhetoric about growing high technology industry at home to be met by action and in this case, it even has the opportunity to match industrial and energy policy to the advantage of the nation.

Will consumers really change their energy usage based on price?

Yesterday I attended the final dissemination conference for the Transition Pathways to a Low Carbon Economy project. Two very interesting presentations were made by Sarah Higginson from Loughborough University and Dr. Tom Hargreaves from the University of East Anglia. Essentially, their subject matter was one of consumer behaviour and energy consumption.

Tom’s research on the use of smart meters and energy monitors resonated with me. I myself own an energy monitor, but as happened with many of the subjects in Tom’s study, I stopped paying attention to it after a year or so, and it currently sits in the kitchen lifeless due to its batteries being dead. At the beginning, I was keen to work out the typical electricity usage in my flat, but once I got an idea of what is on and can be turned off, my efforts dwindled.

Sarah had tracked the energy usage in a number of households over a 24 hour period, paying particular attention to cooking, laundry, and entertainment. She asked her volunteer households to defer certain activities at particular times of the day in order to see how their behaviour changed. Essentially, her volunteer households made the changes because she asked them to do something temporarily. This no doubt provided an opportunity for those in the study to understand how they might change their behaviour, if it was desirable. But she also stumbled on the essential point that some (perhaps most) people, won’t change their energy usage behaviour based simply upon price signals.

A quote shown from a DECC report on smart metering suggested that the typical consumer would save around £23 per year once the meter was installed. Basically, that amounts to £2 per month or £6 per quarter, depending on your billing period. Hardly something to write home about. I suspect even the poorest among us would rather behave as ‘normal’ than make the effort to save £2.

Thus, Sarah and Tom’s research raise two interesting points if consumer behaviour is to be changed. The first is that simply showing people how much they’re consuming may make an initial difference, but that effect dwindles. Secondly, getting people to change their behaviour is a matter of engagement, not signalling. Most efforts to date remain fairly remote in terms of engagement, typically information campaigns by government and energy suppliers. Sarah mentioned that in California, the risk of blackout has created more of a community spirit where people ‘do their bit’ and change their behaviour in order to lower the risk of a blackout. As it is, what I’ve heard over the past few years suggests that Europe’s energy system is reaching a crisis point and that, for different reasons in different countries, we may also start to experience blackouts.

The question is, what can be done to get consumers to change their behaviour before this happens? Sadly, I don’t have a silver bullet answer, and it appears evident that neither does anyone else. Even worse, I have found myself becoming increasingly apathetic over the last year as I have seen various efforts on my part come to naught, suggesting in microcosm that even those with initially strong conviction can become weary of trying to push the green line.

In a way, I hope the blackouts do arrive because they are more likely to force people to act than anything else, especially in a city as impatient as London. In the meantime, I shall be grateful that summer is on the way so that clothes can be dried outside, lights don’t need to be turned on when I get up, cold showers are welcome, and salads become the norm.