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Bus good, car bad? Our moral judgments don’t hold in today’s post-modal world

Tom Cohen
20 August 2018


Remember the first day at sustainable transport boot camp? That’s right: we marched up and down, shouting “Bus good! Car bad!” until we were hoarse. On day two we genuflected before the (now ubiquitous) image from Münster in Germany that shows the relative amounts of road space taken up by the same number of people travelling by bus, car or bicycle.  The evil of the car was so obvious; our response so visceral. At our passing-out parade, we swore we would give our all to achieve “mode shift”. Ah, heady days. But it was never that simple, was it?

First, that Münster image assumed each car would have only one occupant. Car occupancy may have been flat in England for years but the average is nevertheless over 1.5. It didn’t play fair on bus occupancy either, in suggesting that every seat would be filled.  The Great Britain average occupancy is 11.3, (or 3.2 people per passenger-car unit (PCU) based on 3.5 PCU for a bus). A lot better than car’s 1.5, yes, but the contrast is rather less stark than the image suggests. And this matters partly because the conversion of the bus fleet to low emissions is not exactly hurtling along. Buses are cleaner than they were but they are still underperforming cars in terms of NOx per passenger-km and doing only marginally better on particulates, given actual occupancy rates.

All of this is context to some fundamental changes that are taking place. First, the boundary between individual and collective transport is being eroded. Take Chariot, for instance: a bus, Jim, but not as we know it. It escapes “bus stigma” by being more a club on wheels, and is marketed at the yuppie who aspires to be a hipster (or vice versa) and who might think twice about taking a “regular” bus. Note, meanwhile, that it’s a rediscovery of the minibus format (like Citymapper and others), which points to a more efficient use of road space through right-sizing. Or how about UberPOOL? It takes you door-to-door (like individual transport) but you’re probably travelling with strangers. And, in contrast with the idea that you might encounter unsavoury characters on an ordinary bus, Uber would have you believe that you’re about to meet your new best friend when you book your ride.  In both of these cases, we seem to have a hybrid of individual and collective transport. Whether either example is ‘a good thing’ is a matter of opinion but you must surely concede that this is not business as usual. Further defiance of the individual/collective divide may arrive with the automated vehicle as ‘pod’: it has been suggested they will sometimes join together in a transport conga for reasons of efficiency.  That might look quite like … a bus.

The other boundary under threat is that between public and private transport. It used to be simple: buy a car, drive a car. Now, car clubs readily give you exclusive (if temporary) access to a vehicle you don’t own.  The so-called sharing economy brings us numerous other examples of a transport system that is splintering into a variety of shades between travellers who are vehicle owners and travellers who are not. Car clubs also appear to herald an increase in the average intensity of car use. This points to a reduction over time in total ‘PCU-hours’ imposed on the network, where this quantity captures both driven and parked time. And more intensive use of vehicles is also associated with rapid fleet turnover, bringing more efficient (i.e. cleaner) cars on-stream sooner. It’s clear that this blurring of the private/public boundary is helping to undermine the case for owning a vehicle. Moreover, this expansion in the number of options and their increasing flexibility is also leading us to move differently. Mobility as a Service, anyone?

This is why I use the term ‘post-modal’. We can no longer ascribe moral labels to individual motorised modes as we used to. This is for two reasons: first, because it’s proving harder these days to differentiate between them and, second, because the modes’ characteristics are themselves in flux. This change doesn’t excuse us from assessing critically the forms of transport in play but it does require us to be more discerning. No more “bus good, car bad”. Instead, we need to look more deeply: what is the quantity of network capacity consumed per effective passenger-km? How much energy is used? What negative externalities are generated? What are the distributional impacts? The answers to these questions will help us to determine the actual merits of both traditional and emerging forms of transport.

Note that adopting this framework does not for a second threaten active travel’s position at the top of the hierarchy: walking and cycling remain transport royalty and there is no doubt that we shall have to continue to work hard to provide for them whether or not we adopt the more circumspect approach I describe above.  

With respect to motorised transport, though, there is a very interesting consequence of adopting the deeper thinking I advocate. When it was easy to vilify the car on environmental and traffic grounds, we sustainable transportistas didn’t have to disclose a further reason for preferring the bus: that we think it’s socially desirable for people to share vehicles with strangers because it helps us to retain a sense of community (or insert your preferred phrase here). This is of course Nanny-state territory so we need to tread carefully. But, if we do see value in riding with strangers – I certainly do – we’ll have to find new ways of encouraging and sustaining this behaviour. Just one of the challenges in our post-modal world. 

Tom Cohen is a senior fellow (research and teaching) at the Centre for Transport Studies, University College London. 

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