Transport Watch UK Focusing on UK's Traffic & Traffic Systems

Tom Johnson on March 16, 2005


The human factor

This website makes an excellent case against rail on technical and economic grounds but it ignores the crucial human factor.

No matter how clever a transport master plan is, it is useless if there is no compliance on the side of passenger. And sadly transport is one area where consumers behave highly irrationally.

Take the bicycle as an example of just how irrational many commuters are. The contrast between bicycle and road is even more stark than between rail and road. Commuting by bicycle is (a guesstimated) 20-40 times cheaper than by car and 5 times cheaper than by bus. It is faster than both modes below three miles and fuel consumption is zero. Who in their right mind living three miles from work would take a car? (you would think). Well, most people I know do!

This website comes to the conclusion that buses are cheaper and more fuel efficient than trains. That in itself is not surprising (it's common sense to me). But, taking cycling as a precedent, we're still a long way from saying that people will actually use buses.

Let's look at London for instance. Most of the commuter transport in the centre is done by rail. Roads are operating near maximum capacity and space for new roads is limited. Now say all the millions of rail passengers were moved to buses. The only way I could see this working in practise is by severely restricting private car use on the roads. Something similar has been done in a couple of South American cities in the form bus rapid transit (BRT) but there only 15% of the population owns a car. In car-loving Britain it would never happen. Opposition from the public would be fierce (as the Edinburgh referendum has shown all too clearly). The other problem is that people hate buses even more than they hate trains. Many commuters, no longer able to take trains, would switch to the car not the bus. Others would stop commuting alltogether!

Why is tramlink in South London so successful? Because trams are superior to buses? No, it is because people like trams and people will go on trams.

There is more to transport than plain engineering. The human factor cannot be underestimated.


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