The average cost of owning a car is about £400/month, including financing and depreciation (perhaps £150/month for a second-hand car owned outright). You pay that whether or not you use it. When you choose between driving or taking public transport, you only think about the ‘marginal’ costs: fuel and parking versus bus or train fares. For most trips, public transport is more expensive because the fare has to cover the operator’s overheads, not just fuel.
There are two scenarios in which public transport is cost-competitive with driving: where public transport fares are heavily subsidised; or you don’t have a car. Subsidies require taxes, and people generally don’t vote for higher taxes – especially to pay for something they don’t currently use or need. On the other hand, not owning a car induces you to choose the most appropriate mode for each trip: walk, cycle, bus, train, car-share or car-hire.
So, what makes a car-free lifestyle viable? In the first place, feeling safe and comfortable making short trips on foot or cycle. The fewer trips you need a car for, the easier it is to decide not to replace it or not buy one in the first place. Once you make that decision, the cost of public transport seems more reasonable.
The first travel survey for Northstowe contains some encouraging statistics: 24% of commuting trips are by bus and 14% by cycle. Still, 97% of households have at least one car and 43% have two. This proves that having access to a half-decent bus service does not by itself make car-free living viable for many people.
When asked what would encourage them to walk or cycle more, residents wanted safer, better-lit and more attractive routes; and more amenities within walking distance. If those points were addressed, more people would give up their cars, and walk, cycle and use public transport instead, leading to sustained reductions in emissions of carbon and pollution, and improved public health.
To meet their climate change and air quality targets, local authorities must invest first in creating (with developers) safe, attractive walking and cycling infrastructure, linked to all local amenities.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 10 June 2020.