There seems to be a constituency of consumers out there who are calling themselves the Squeezed Middle. And they’re mightily p*ssed off, so much so they want to vent. I got some choice words for them later on. However, I had a surprisingly pleasant experience yesterday.
I hauled my carcass into the car to drive to London to visit my parents, guess it’s a 75-mile trip each way. I’m mortgage free and I have no intention of taking out the small mortgage I’d need to buy a rail ticket. I’m going to London tomorrow by train for work and it costs my company £78 of their Great British Pounds to do it. I hope I can add that much value to the meeting compared to a phone conference, but heck, it’s their call as it’s on their coin.
So I fill up the car flexing the credit card for £62-odd. It’s been a couple of months since I bought petrol, as the trusty bicycle doesn’t touch the stuff. I note that it’s probably the highest about I’ve ever spent on a tank of petrol, and then I set myself on my journey down to The Smoke.
I launch myself onto the A12 from Ipswich, and I think to myself blimey, where have all the people gone? Is there a football match or a Royal Wedding on? Okay, so it’s a Sunday late morning, but I know what the traffic should be, I’ve done this journey often enough. So I settle in and try and maintain an even speed of about 60 to optimise my fuel consumption of my 12 year old car that has already seen more than 100,000 miles of road, and it’s dead easy. I’m not streetfighting the trucks and I can let all the folks who have more money than me hare along in the outside lane, but even they aren’t streaking past me at about 40-50mph above my speed as they used to.
This reminds me of how Britain’s roads were when I learned to drive, in 1984, you didn’t have the frenetic and tiresome jockeying for position then that has become the norm on our crowded highways.
So I say hooray for high petrol prices – it prices all those other buggers off the road that were getting in my way. I arrived at my parents’ place more relaxed than usual, heck, I’d pay more to get the balance shifted even further. Which is kinda just as well, as I’m sure it will go that way, for all sorts of reasons, like peak oil, the increasing debasement of Britain’s currency, the general decline of the Western world relative to the East in competing for natural resources etc.
According to the New Statesman we are into ‘peak car’ where people really are being priced off the road (hat tip to Alex for the heads up). About time too, the ever increasing volume of traffic on Britain’s roads, particularly the huge number of trucks doing the old truck race blocking both lanes of a two-lane road, was beginning to make inter-city driving in the UK really draining. On-cue the Grauniad delivers us this heart-wrenching tale of the Blanchards, a couple comprising of a chap and a SAHM who are part of the Squeezed Middle. Let’s take a look at the ways they seek to design oil dependency into their lifestyle.
So they had to get rid of one car, so the remaining vehicle naturally gets driven by the wage earner to get to work. What, then, is the nature of the complaint? It appears the lady (a SAHM I observe) has to take the 16-month old out of nursery ‘cos she no longer has a car to take him there, and now considers herself imprisoned in her home, to wit:
It means I can’t get anywhere now, including nursery.
Well, err, colour me a cynical son of a gun, but lady, you are a SAHM, so what’s with this nursery lark then? One of the upsides of living in a purty li’l village is you get to enjoy the birdsong and the smell of the countryside in its rich variety, one of the downsides is you are miles from anywhere – well, 10 miles from Cambridge. Apparently the bus fare for those 10 miles is now £5.40 return. Count yourself lucky, lady, the bus fare for me to get to work and back is that much and it’s only 6.5 miles each way, which is why I get on my bike.
These Squeezed Middlers have built themselves an unsustainable lifestyle, though at the moment the solution is easy – SAHM actually has to be a SAHM and SAH to be a M, the clue’s in the acronym. Tesco or Ocado are going to have to deliver… Then we have the coup de grace
Our children are missing out and the government needs to lower the price of petrol much closer to £1 to help families out.
It’s the classic please won’t you think of the children? line. Why does the government need to use my taxes to subsidise your lifestyle? I’m not being a child-hating fascist here, when I was a kid my family didn’t even have a car till I was in secondary school! Schools, yes, health, yes, excess driving for SAHMs to live out in the country yet have access to the facilities of the town like the nursery, let’s just hold on a moment. It is possible to survive without a car, y’know. The choice has been one that people took for years before oil – you store or save your needs for about a month if you live in the country, and make a monthly trip into town, or you live in a more modest abode in town with easy access to the facilities around you and shop every day.
In the coming decades transport will become ever more expensive. We will move ourselves are our supplies about less. We will manage stores better, as the fragile just-in-time supply chins that gorged on cheap oil fracture and fail in service. We will reimplement some of the systems that were used in the past, or more evenly distributed and graduated local, city, regional, county and country stores. We will probably still have modern communications and data processing, so we will manage our stock far more efficiently than we used to. And country dwellers will make infrequent trips into town. £5.40 return is a killer if you do it every day, but it is not outrageous if you do it once a week. My Mum shopped one a week to the shopping centre for durables and ISTR twice a week if not more often for fresh veg from greengrocers and market stalls.
We are going to have to think differently about how we live and how we supply ourselves. At least in Europe we still have a physical geography that reflects a time when supplies were distributed before cheap oil. I don’t know how Americans are going to be able to keep the suburbs and exurbs supplied in future, but they are a resourceful bunch so I am sure there’s a way.
Oh, and before I take some stick for being some hyper-rich Toad of Toad Hall, I spent a total of £319 on petrol last year, so I am not Mr Toad, and it is why I can afford it if petrol doubles in price, indeed I could cope if it went up 10x, though I would probably cut my mileage even more and bike in the rain. I’m not rich as Croesus either, my household income puts the household into the nominal Squeezed Middle, though having no mortgage probably puts me at the upper end of it in terms of disposable income. I haven’t designed a long commute into my lifestyle, that was a choice I made decades ago. My London commute was 15 miles and 1.5 hours each way, and I resolved that one of the things I was going to fix was making sure I didn’t have that experience again. I was lucky in having that bad experience, but in general we are increasingly going to have to design our lives to involve less driving. Moaning that the government should subsidise fuel to allow SAHMs to drive their kids to nursery isn’t the right answer…
In the meantime, I look forward to increasingly empty roads. I hadn’t noticed this drop in traffic going to work because my bike ride doesn’t go via too many main roads, and indeed it seemed to be the inter-city part of the journey that had less traffic, I can’t say I noticed any big reduction in town or in London.