More than one million people are living in 'transport poverty'
Well over a million people in Devon and Cornwall are living in "transport poverty" which puts vital access to work and healthcare at risk.
Poor access to public transport and the rising costs of running a car, combined with low salary levels, mean the rural Westcountry is particularly hard-hit, research by transport charity Sustrans has revealed.
Torridge in West Devon has emerged as the worst affected district in the South West, with a third of residents – 21,000 people – living in "severe" transport poverty, while more than 90% experience it on some level.
North Devon follows close behind, with one in five experiencing the most severe issues, while Mid Devon is next with 17%.
In Cornwall, the figures are not broken down to district level because the county is governed by a single authority. There, 9% – or nearly 50,000 people – were in the most severe category, while more than 85% experience some degree of transport poverty.
Sustrans is calling on Ministers to invest in public transport and safe walking and cycling routes, in order to give people alternatives to increasingly unaffordable car ownership.
David Redgewell, spokesman for the South West Transport Network, said the situation would only worsen after the Government refused to allow Stagecoach to buy out First bus group when it pulls out of North Devon this month. He said: "We're fearful that the Torridge situation could spread across the whole of the South West. Buses are the main form of community transport, and we need to be investing, not cutting services."
Torridge District Council leader Barry Parsons recognised the "hardship" faced by low-wage earners, and said the council supported the North Tamar Community Transport Association and the Torridge Community Transport Association in Bideford, which support those in most need.
Councillor Stuart Hughes, Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Highways and Transportation, said the large, rural area was always going to see "intensified" transport problems, and the cabinet had not cut the transport budget this year.
"The dilemma facing rural areas is that low patronage on bus services pushes up the subsidy costs per passenger.
"That's why the County Council is endeavouring to take an innovative approach, with Fare Cars offering a cost-effective alternative in areas where buses may have had very few passengers." He highlighted community transport schemes including Wheels 2 Work, based in Torridge, which provides scooters for those in need.
Devon farmer Richard Haddock was involved in protests over rising fuel costs earlier this year, and said easy access to public transport was key to helping young people find work.
"Many rural petrol stations have closed. I know people who have to travel a 50-mile round trip just to get fuel."
Cornwall Council has invested more than £36 million in the rail network over the last decade, and had seen usage rise by double the national average. Last year, Cornwall's buses carried more than 12.5 million passengers, and the authority is investing in cycle and foot paths.