Tag Archives: motoring

Fear of the unknown

Jim mentions the difficulties of bicycle maintenance and repair as a barrier to cycling. It’s one of several minor barriers to cycling — nothing compared with the problem of the uncomfortable, intimidating and dangerous environment that is so many of our roads and streets, but a real effect nonetheless. It’s actually part of a larger barrier: a combination of not knowing how it’s done, and not having adjusted to it. How do you know what clothes you need? What do you need to see by and be seen at night? Do you need special shoes? How do you carry things? On a rack? But then, how do I know which one fits this bike? Isn’t it a hassle having to unlock the garden shed, move the lawn mower out of the way, and carry it through the house to the front drive every time you have a journey to make?

Stephen discusses the perception that rail travel is expensive, and Simon the idea that it’s difficult and unpleasant. Everyone knows that a train journey costs hundreds of pounds, will be very late, and you’ll be standing in the corridors with smelly and possibly dangerous strangers, but they wouldn’t know, if they were to ever have to use a train, how to find out the times, how they would carry and look after their luggage, how they’d make their connection, or how to complete the final mile from the station. They’d spend ages looking for the right ticket type and checking they were pressing the right buttons on the ticket machine, and they wouldn’t be able to find the right exit at the big city terminus. It’s just so difficult and complicated. Similarly, buses are very difficult: you’re not sure exactly where to get one, how to pay, what to say to the driver (is one supposed to leave a tip?), how to make it stop — or even where to make it stop — and how early to get to the bus station to ensure you don’t miss the last one home.

Obviously all this is nonsense. Bicycle maintenance is almost as easy as riding a bike: you just wheel it down to the bicycle mechanic’s shop once you’ve learned it by making a few mistakes, you always know how. Train travel even easier. Of the countless (certainly well into three figures) assorted train journeys I’ve made in the past year and a half, including travelling most of the length of the country and back five times (I am a bad person and do not endorse such hypermobility), I’ve never paid more than £56.75 (PNR-EUS after a last minute change of plans), rarely paid much more than £15, stood in the corridors for a total of about half an hour, missed a booked train once, witnessed one fight (MCV-TOD on a sat eve), and had to change plans due to total service failure (GLC-ADS) once. Mostly they have been easy, relaxed, delightful, productive, or, at the very least, fine. And much of it excellent value — especially the three pence per mile for the Highland Sleepers, with bed, lounge, and tea in the morning included. You just need to know where and when to book in advance, who to go to for help, and which journeys would be quicker on a different line or cheaper by leaving half an hour later, or with a rover or season ticket. Those aren’t things that require lessons or study or investing time and effort. You don’t have to make many journeys before you just remember that trains always call at X, Y and Z minutes past the hour, the cheaper services start at 08:Z, and the ones at Y minutes past are quicker, or have more seats, or one of those other things that one picks up without any effort.

What must really be difficult and expensive is driving. I wouldn’t know where to start. Well, getting lessons and a license, I guess, but how do you go about doing that and how much does that cost? At least, judging from the competence of much of the driving I see, you’re not required to actually be very good at it, otherwise I doubt they’d ever let me do it, even if I wanted to: it looks complicated and I’m not sure if I’d really get the hang of it. And then getting a car. What kind? There are so many different makes and models — presumably all for different uses. I wouldn’t want to accidentally buy a racing car or mountain car if what I needed was a utility or touring car. And I’ve heard about car manufacturers and salesfolk. How do you know it’s good quality, ethically sourced, and not a scam or stolen goods? And drivers keep moaning about things like “road tax”: how do you know all these different bits of bureaucracy you need to get and pay for? What happens if you forget one of them? Are they for life, or do you need to remember to renew? What do you do if something breaks? It’s surely far too complicated to fix it yourself. How do you even do the refuelling thing? Perhaps there’s a tutorial on YouTube…

That’s all before you’ve even started driving it. How do you time the journey right? It’s obvious when trains and buses are due, and the average speed of a journey by foot or by bicycle has little journey-to-journey or day-to-day variation — we can all make a reasonably accurate estimate of a foot or bicycle journey time, it’s like language: just a skill we pick up over time as kids. But drivers seem to get themselves into all sorts of time-consuming queues that fluctuate during the day and over time according to patterns that I have difficulty following: I assume they have to pad all of their journeys to take such unpredictable variation into account? What do you do about the motion sickness? Doesn’t it get smelly, the confined enclosed space? What about when it rains: how do you see out of it? How do you find time to write blog posts if you can’t do them while on a long journey? Doesn’t it get boring having to just sit there concentrating on the job of driving? And don’t you get fat? How do you stop that? What about storing the thing? Judging from what I’ve seen around town, you can just store your car on any vaguely flat surface, and there are a lot of them, but what do you do if you get to your destination and there isn’t a convenient bit of road, footway, cycle path, field, park, cemetery, village green, or somebody’s front garden available that doesn’t already have somebody else’s car stored on it? And it must be a lot of hassle organising everything around having to return to the spot where you stored it. It all just sounds way too complicated.

Even leaving aside the expense and sheer impracticality of motoring, the complexity of it and the the length of the list of things you would have to find out about, learn how to do, and remember each time you wanted to make a journey — the known unknowns that I’ve listed and the unknown unknowns that might come as a shock — is frightening. The idea of adopting a new mode of transport is genuinely overwhelming. You’d have to adjust your whole life to it, and there are a million better things you could be doing with your time. Give me a simple bicycle and a railcard every time: you always know where you are with those.

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“Britain pays more for fuel than anywhere else”

It’s another frequently raised fact in comment threads and pub agreements.  Everybody knows it’s true.  If it wasn’t true, why would everybody know it and repeat it all the time?  They can’t all be wrong.

You would think though that such a fact, with all of the resources of the tabloid media and interested industry lobbies behind it, would have some readily available evidence to support it.  You would think that all these petrolhead websites would be falling over themselves to present the data showing off our great national achievement scandal.

Here’s the data:

Retail petrol prices in the past few weeks in Euros: EU countries from AA Ireland, US from DoE converted to Euros/litre with Google converter.

There are six EU countries with more expensive petrol right now; two others that match us.  The rest clustering around.  In Norway petrol is 20p per litre more expensive than here.  In Spain it’s 20p per litre cheaper.

Obviously relative fuel prices between countries fluctuate according to international and national events, our various national tax schedules, and, where applicable, currency fluctuations.  The order of countries on the list changes all the time.  I’d quite like to assemble a timelapse of the graph for the past 20 years, to see whether there were any interesting trends — perhaps it was true for a while that the UK was paying a noticeable amount more?  But there are a lot of other things I’d quite like to do more, so I’m not going to.

The best source I can find for the claim is a uSwitch “survey” from 2008: PDF. As you can see, uSwitch take researching their “surveys” even more seriously than I take researching blog posts.  They put some keywords into Google, found various sources of data, and put them together in Excel.  I recommend going to page 5 to follow their quite fabulous method for calculating the annual national spend on petrol.  Apparently we don’t have the real data, so they had to make it up.  Only they forgot the Peter Snow “just a bit of fun” disclaimers when they prepared the press release and accidentally got their made up facts printed in every newspaper.

The “survey” did show that Britain was paying more per litre than other European countries in 2008 (when the pound was noticeably stronger against the Euro).  In many cases it was only by a hair’s breadth, and thus it was not a particularly interesting fact, but it was true nonetheless, according to the data given.   So a press release was prepared and the newspapers mangled some impressive sounding numbers out of the data, which have become part of the collective wisdom of the British people.  Interestingly, even though the “survey” itself pointed out that we do not pay the highest rate of tax, this didn’t prevent the Daily Mail declaring that it is so in their headline.

But enough of that.  The basic conclusion is that, currently, the claim is not true.  And when it was true, it probably wasn’t interestingly true.  And the other conclusion is that, for such a common claim, there doesn’t seem to be any good quality well presented and well publicised data on this.  I’d love to see such things as:

  • Price-per-litre trends over time for these countries, with and without taking into account inflation and currency fluctuations.
  • Amount and proportion of the price-per-litre that is tax, with trends over time.
  • Total national spend (not made up numbers), with population, number of cars, etc, for comparison.  (Because paying more for petrol is not the same as spending more on petrol, and the latter probably says far more interesting things.)

And probably more.  But I looked in the obvious places and found nothing, and I will obviously not be compiling the datasets myself from each individual data point.  Surely there must be databases for this sort of thing?  I’m a science guy.  This sort of basic data is what scientists have free and publicly accessible databases with powerful querying tools for.  I’m used to having silly ideas and being able to instantly try them against the vast databases of already collected data.  I want a database for this sort of thing.  Is there one?  If it exists, it’s well hidden. I know all of the data exists, it’s just not accessible and easy to use…

“Driving has never cost more”

End to the war on the motorists?  No, driving’s never cost more,” declares Mark King, Money Editor, in The Observer today.  To be fair to King, he doesn’t actually say anything as absurd as that driving has “never cost more” in his article — but newspaper headline writers have never let reality or the actual content of an article get in their way.

Why would a headline writer, having glanced at a boring but reasonable article about saving money, think to write “driving’s never cost more”?  Where did they get that idea from?

Are cars more expensive than ever?

You would guess not: the manufacturing process has become vastly more efficient over the decades.  But it was really difficult to find data on this.  By difficult, I mean Google, Google Scholar, Wikipedia and WolframAlpha all failed to find anything useful with my keywords (thanks perhaps to the hundreds of excellently search engine optimised spam sites), and I’m too lazy to do proper research.  Instead, I pulled out a quick and crude graph of the US consumer price index for new cars compared to that for all items, showing how the cost of purchasing a car has fallen compared to general inflation in the cost of living.  (Obviously there is a plethora of caveats with this data and the contributory factors to the cost of living over here are quite different to the US — if anybody can find a more appropriate data set, please let me know.  Data from the UK for 1997-2009 is given further down the page, and shows a massive fall in the price of a new car even over that short time.)

Is fuel more expensive than ever?

Mark King could have read his own newspaper to find out that, no, fuel is not more expensive than ever.  Fuel prices are high, and Motorists can’t hide from the fact that dwindling resources are ever more difficult and dangerous to harvest.  They’re at the top-end of the post-war range, but not outside of the range that we should be used to:

That must be because oil is getting cheaper, right?  Because everybody knows that fuel tax is always going up.  Actually, as Mark King’s own editor pointed out in October, thanks to repeated freezes in fuel tax to appease the tabloids and roads lobby fuel duty remained 11% down on 1999 rates when inflation was taken into account.

So the price-per-litre is high but not exceptional.  But during all that time, the amount of distance you can get for that litre has been rising as cars get more fuel efficient.  Wikipedia has a graph for average fuel efficiency of car models available in the US.  (Average fuel efficiency of cars on the road, in the UK at least, will be higher and may not follow exactly the same trend, because we purchase more cars at the high end of the fuel efficiency range.)  You may be paying a little bit more each time you fill up, but unless you are driving further, you should have found yourself filling up less frequently over the years.

What about the other costs?

Is it more expensive than ever to pay your “road tax“?  Only if you have a really absurd car.  You could pay £950 in the first year of owning a car that emits over 255 g/km CO2.  But only expensive SUVs and sports cars fall into that category — if you own such a car, you are already rich enough to not notice the tax.  Normal cars fall in the top three or four tax bands, where tax has fallen and owners will pay only a token amount of tax, if they pay anything at all.

I couldn’t find much information on maintenance and insurance costs — though I didn’t try very hard, since these are not a significant proportion of overall costs anyway.  If anybody can find good data, I’ll add these to the post.

One area where “costs” might be rising is in depreciation — the decline in resale value.  People aren’t buying second hand cars so much, for all sorts of reasons — because new cars are so cheap (especially during the scrappage scheme and with all the other government subsidies) to the fact that nobody who buys second hand cars wants an old inefficient SUV.

So driving is more expensive than ever?

Mark King (or his headline writer) could have read his own newspaper to see that the Department for Transport estimate that the cost of driving fell 9% between 1980 and 2007.  Alternatively they could have read the Economist last month, which estimated an even more dramatic fall in the cost of driving — especially compared to the rise in disposable income — even during Labour’s famous “War On The Motorist”:

A lot of things happened in the past 18 months, but it’s not plausible to suggest that this trend has completely reversed.

Why do so many people think driving is more expensive than ever?

I don’t think they do.  Most people who are complaining are trying their luck.  Some of it is recall bias — they just don’t accurately remember how expensive cars and fuel used to be.  Some of it is the fact that the costs which are falling — annual VED and upfront vehicle purchase — are one-off or rare payments that one forgets about, unlike the weekly payment at the petrol pump, even though for most people the cost of the vehicle still makes up the bulk of the cost of driving.  Some of it is the Daily Express, the Taxpayer’s Alliance, and the rest of the roads lobby talking bollocks about the poor hard done by Motorist.  But, really, most of the car users I know are complaining about the costs no more or less than they always have.

What is probably true is that motoring is a painful cost for many people.  But paradoxically, it’s the fall in the cost of motoring that has caused this problem.  During the good times of the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, more and more people have built themselves into a car dependency.  Car ownership is higher than ever because the cost has been falling for so long.  And so, with everybody owning a car, our houses have moved further from our work places, our village shops and services have closed, and the bus service has been withdrawn.  This in turn pushes more people to buy and run a car, even if they can not really afford to do so and were quite happy living without one until the shops closed.  And when the good times turn bad — when wages are frozen, when office locations are merged, and when redundancies are handed out — you can not simply give up the car.  The world changed.

Driving is not more expensive than ever.  Fuel is not more expensive than ever.  Not even fuel tax is more expensive than ever.  Claims that they are don’t even come close to reflecting reality.  And for most people, the fall in the cost of vehicles is far more significant than the cost of fuel.

Rather, ever more people who can not really afford it have been conned by false promises of the aspirational and “liberating” car lifestyle or forced into car dependency against their will.  And the tabloid media and Motoring lobby want to capture the few who are left.  Our politicians and planners should be liberating poor and rural people from that expensive car dependency, not keeping them captive right on the threshold of what they can afford.

This is a hastily thrown together blog not a scholarly article — if you spot something not quite right, do let me know so that it can be corrected.