Cycling as the realistic substitute for the car

Burying the conventional urban myth about public transport VeloCity, Milano, 1995.

The role of public transport is much exaggerated. This has led to a serious distortion and under-estimation of the potential role of the bicycle (and, to a lesser extent, walking) as a more realistic substitute for car travel on urban journeys. The essential transfer away from the car to achieve more of the current objectives of public policy on environmental protection, energy saving, health promotion, car use reduction, and getting best value for money, would be furthered by giving pride of place in towns and cities to cycling (and walking) before public transport.

Governments in the developed world are getting the message. Building motorways, by-passes and so-called road ‘improvements’ may bring some short-term relief in reducing traffic congestion. In the longer term, that makes matters worse as more people are attracted to adopting more geographically-spread and car-dependent patterns of activity, and wish to travel at higher speeds. This then adds to the adverse impacts of traffic.

How has this unrelenting growth, posing one of the greatest environmental threats to the ecology of the planet, come about? It is simply explained. A physical and cultural environment has been created in which people use motor vehicles without considering the effects this has on the personal mobility and safety of everyone else, especially those without a car, on local and global pollution, and on the quality of life generally – albeit each time only marginally harmful. But, in Europe alone, there are now hundreds of millions of licence-holders doing so, on average driving 30 kilometres daily. The aggregation of these individual decisions, made almost exclusively from a self-interest perspective, is not an appropriate base for determining transport policy at the level of central government or the municipality.

In the political and professional debate about the most effective means of combatting the problems the decisions cause, a consensus has been growing: improve the convenience, speed and comfort of public transport to provide a quality of travel matching that of the car. Accordingly, high investment in bus, tram and rail services is commonly proposed, together with subsidised fares, possibly using revenue from additional motor fuel taxes and from road pricing. Car users, it is thought, will then be encouraged to transfer back to public transport, or can be obliged to do so, with less grounds for opposing measures aimed at bringing this about.

This judgement about the desirability of giving primacy to public transport, especially for urban travel, is commonplace. It is apparent in documents produced by the European Commission, nearly all levels of government around the world, papers by academics and transport institutions, and in party political agenda-setting statements and in the media. It is rarely questioned. The sole factor limiting the allocation of a larger slice of the transport ‘cake’ to public transport stems from budgetary limitations. However, my examination of transport statistics from many European countries provides evidence for challenging the judgement (Hillman, 1995).

Grounds for playing down the role of public transport in urban travel

1. All forms of public transport are the source of danger, noise, pollution, community severance, and greenhouse gas emissions – to a lesser extent than the car but, with typical vehicle occupancies, not significantly so.

2. The door-to-door travel time of car drivers is typically far lower than that of bus or rail passengers. Public transport can compete with the car on only a small proportion of journeys up to 50 kilometres in length – which account for the great majority of all journeys – unless major restrictions on car use are imposed, such as much reduced speed limits. Whilst rail can sometimes match the car on the small minority of all journeys that exceed 50 kilometres, owing to problems of access to and from railway stations, it carries a very low proportion of them. But, as can be seen in some North European countries, it has greater prospects if the combination of rail and bicycle is encouraged.

3. The real and perceived costs and attractions of car travel will have to be drastically altered far more than simply subsidising fares if the car is still not to represent a ‘better buy’, especially when several people travel together. Otherwise, holding down fares is likely to have only a minor effect on this particular modal choice.

4. The expectation that, given sufficient improvement in public transport, people will return to it from the car overlooks the fact that, in the main, they were not formerly making the same pattern of journeys by public transport. Far from it: for every passenger mile ‘lost’ to public transport during the last few decades, many more have been ‘gained’ by car.

5. Even when large investment has been made in high quality public transport services, the outcome has been disappointing. Analysis of international figures shows that new public transport systems cost far more than budgeted, carry fewer passengers than predicted, and ‘win over’ relatively few car owners.

6. Given that most people can walk and given the much higher level of bicycle ownership than of their daily use in countries that have made little provision for them, the scope for increasing use of the non-motorised modes as means of transport rather than as forms of occasional recreation is considerable. In Western European countries, approximately three-quarters of all journeys are less than eight kilometres long. With networks for pedestrians and cyclists designed both to minimise the risk of collision with vehicles and to raise environmental quality, walking could cater for most of the shorter of these journeys, and the bicycle for many of the remainder – certainly far more than bus or rail as an alternative to the car. In the Netherlands, which has made generous provision for cycling and public transport, cycling accounts for over a third of these journeys, that is 14 times the number made by all forms of public transport combined.

Calls are often made in transport circles for a ‘level playing field’ for investment It is argued that we need ‘balance’ and ‘least-cost planning’ and an ‘integrated’ approach in policy decisions. But, remarkably, no comprehensive assessment has been made of the cost-effectiveness of investing in non-motorised networks compared with urban public transport improvements. If such an assessment were, in addition to consideration of financial costs, to include social, environmental and health aspects, particularly the unique benefits of cycling in promoting physical fitness, there can be little doubt as to the direction that this would point in policy: the capital cost per kilometre for high quality public transport systems is typically many hundred times that for cycling provision – the proposed 2000 kilometre cycle network for London would cost the same as 400 metres of an approved underground extension.

Clearly, the main obstacle to cycling, which perhaps explains why so few urban municipalities have taken it seriously, is that, until recently, they do not wish to be seen to be promoting an activity that is intrinsically unsafe in today’s traffic environment. However, in countries where the fear of being run into by a motor vehicle has been reduced dramatically by creating safe cycle routes, the serious injury rate for cyclists is low, and children as well as adults use their bicycles with relatively little risk. Moreover, my recent research provides strong grounds for proposing that, even in a relatively dangerous environment, it is unsafe for most people not to cycle regularly (British Medical Association, 1992). It shows that, in practice, there is no other way whereby exercise can be taken on a regular basis throughout the year and from childhood through to old age, thereby contributing to a lifestyle less likely to lead to ill-health and especially to heart disease – a type of ‘injury’ affecting many more victims each year than results from crashes on the roads.

Spending on prestigious public transport schemes may be an attractive and conspicuous way for governments to demonstrate that they are aiming to provide an attractive and practical alternative to the car. However,no sensible balance in transport investment can be struck unless investment in all the modes are evaluated according to common criteria.

The message comes across loud and clear: any evaluation of the costs and benefits of each form of transport, taking account of social, health, economic and local and global environmental criteria, is very likely to reveal the non-motorised modes as providing the best rate of return. In turn, this points strongly to a presumption in favour of investment in networks for cyclists and pedestrians and to the adoption of a wide range of other measures of enabling and promoting journeys to be made by these modes.

Of course, public transport has an important role to play in providing for journeys that are not appropriately made by non-motorised means, but public investment would be far better spent first on provision for cycling and walking.

British Medical Association (1992), (written by Hillman, M.),Cycling: Towards Health and Safety, A report for the British Medical Association, Oxford University Press.

Hillman, M. (1995), ‘Curbing Car Use: The Dangers of Exaggerating the Future Role of Public Transport’ in ed. Beaman D., Quality Transport for the New Planning Environment, CICC Publications, Welwyn, England.

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