The other day I stumbled on this webpage on the site of the Money Advice Service.
The Money Advice Service, which advertises as “Ask MA” on TV, is a Government sponsored, impartial and free advice service on personal financial matters.
Now I suppose it is my good fortune that, due to some academic ability and years of hard work, but also - more than both of those together - simply buckets of good luck, I have spent years in an interesting and lucrative job. I am fortunate that I don’t really need to “Ask MA” myself, but I wholeheartedly applaud their aims, providing counsel to people who have debt problems – my mother, for many years a volunteer counsellor with Citizens’ Advice Bureau, told me that by far the biggest source of problems brought in by their clients was difficulties with debt – and advising people on how to make their limited money go further. So that they could afford to eat and heat their homes at the same time, for example.
But what am I to make of this? Their advice on travel seems to me to be heavily weighted towards car use – not only most of the page, but also the whole top part of the page is devoted to a travel mode which nearly half of all households have no access to, and no doubt among those who need to "Ask MA" the most, a good deal more than that. Advice about public transport or active travel is there, but right at the bottom.
And in any case, their advice is really tinkering around the edges. First up is “Shop around for cheaper car insurance”. Well, doesn’t everybody do that, even overpaid gits like me? How much impact does it have on the overall cost of car ownership?
And then there is “Cut cost of fuel – saving just 5p a litre…could save £100 a year”. No shit, Sherlock! But where are you going to find this cheaper fuel, and how many litres will you burn driving around looking for it?
In fact, there follow several suggestions on how you could improve your fuel consumption – like not driving too fast, or braking/accelerating hard, and making sure your tyres are correctly inflated. I know these work, as I can see that the rolling-average MPG display on our car dashboard can drop about 5% when I am driving instead of my other half, but this is hardly a game changer, is it?
The one glaring omission in their advice is this: first of all, before anything else, ask yourself - does this journey really need to be made by car? How far is it? How much weight or volume of stuff will you have to transport? If you are just “popping in” to your local 7-11 a half-mile down the road for a pint of milk or a newspaper, why are you even thinking of driving? Couldn’t you walk instead? Save yourself all of the fuel that journey would normally take! Save yourself paying for parking! Quite possibly save some time not having to hunt around for a parking space. Get a bit of colour in your cheeks!
And if the journey is more than a mile, but less than say 3 or 4 miles (let’s not over-reach ourselves at the start) why not cycle it?
The site does, to be fair, cover use of public transport and cycling, but the latter is covered in a bare two lines. There is no discussion of the alternatives to short car journeys. There is no mention of the lamentable fact that nearly a quarter of all car journeys are under a mile, half are under three miles and two thirds are under five miles – all distances which are ideal for cycling, and indeed up to 2 or 3 miles are probably quicker by bike. There is no mention of the health benefits, which could also save you money or reduce your risk of sickness absences which might muck up your overtime earnings or even in the worst cases pose an existential threat to your very livelihood.
For a Government sponsored, free unbiased and independent service, would you not expect better than this?