An alternative to oil?

oil-crisis.jpgBy Lee Waters | Oil prices could reach $200 a barrel by the end of the year, and the cost of filling up is rising nearly as fast. Lee Waters, of sustainable transport charity Sustrans, explains why it’s time to explore better ways to get around without the car

FUEL protesters rarely have difficulty grabbing the headlines or gaining public sympathy. After all, who wouldn’t rather pay less to fill up their car?

It seems quite likely that the Government will again back down from its planned increase in petrol tax this autumn. But the way the price of oil has been going, who is going to notice an extra 2p a litre?

Surely it can’t keep on going up and up? Ten years ago the price of oil was trading at $13 a barrel. Five years ago it had doubled to $25. It hit nearly $140 last week. And we haven’t heard the last of it.

Most forecasters think the price of oil is going to stay high, and some even predict it will reach $200 a barrel by the end of the year.

Of course, it is not just the price of petrol that is affected. Our economy is heavily dependent on oil. The price of gas and the price of steel are all closely linked to the black stuff — so the cost of building and heating homes is going up.

And so too is food. The rising price of our weekly shop is closely linked to the rising price of fertiliser and animal feed — all of which rely on oil for their production. And of course there’s the cost of moving goods around.

Around 95% of our transport system is dependent on oil. We’ve been used to fuel costing the same as mineral water and we have designed our towns and cities around the assumption that we can all hop in the car.

But not everyone can. In communities like Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr, where 35% of families are car-less, many low-income families feel forced to “invest” in a car to access jobs and services. And as the cost of petrol goes up it will be the families on tight budgets that are hit the hardest.

Buying and running a car is already a major cause of people getting into trouble with debts, and those on low wages who do have cars spend nearly a quarter of their income on the cost of motoring.

As seductive as it seems, trying to match increases in oil with tax cuts is a road to nowhere.

We need to wean ourselves off oil or face a serious economic slump — that’s on top of the dramatic threat to our prosperity we face from climate change. Last year’s Stern report on the economic impact of climate change warned that unless we take urgent action on cutting carbon emissions we face a downturn greater than the combined effects of both World Wars and the Great Depression.

What’s to be done? There is a different way forward, which will have a wide range of benefits not just for our economy but also for the stability of our climate. But it’s going to require some decisive leadership to make it happen.

A transport system that’s resilient to rising fuel prices needs to remove our over-dependence on oil. By far the majority of our daily journeys are under three miles long, yet the current built environment makes walking, cycling or catching public transport a challenging, sometimes impossible option. But with a number of small changes accompanied by a big vision for a new approach to transport and the planning system, it’s quite possible to make these active and public travel choices the easier, more pleasant and more direct way to get to our everyday destinations.

Sustainable transport charity Sustrans has been working for 30 years on practical projects to enable anyone to walk and cycle right across the UK. And we know that this vision, of a different, more active way to get around, is what people want too — just six months ago, the public voted in their thousands for the Big Lottery Fund to give Sustrans £50m for “Connect2”, a scheme which will build walking and cycling connections across 79 communities throughout the UK, including 10 schemes in Wales.

What is clear from the rising price of oil is that we cannot carry on building a transport system which assumes everyone can jump in a car. Not only is this likely to be unaffordable but it is contributing to a catastrophic shift in our climate. Change is coming. We can either anticipate it and set Wales up as a leader in sustainable travel, or we can continue in a state of denial and delude ourselves that fuel tax cuts will save the day.

Lee Waters is director of the sustainable transport charity Sustrans Cymru