Tag Archives: modal shift

Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?

Glasgow’s literacy and numeracy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Since it has a smaller population of readers to serve, Glasgow should invest less in schools.

Compared to the rest of Europe, a low proportion of people in Glasgow are healthy. The relatively small number of Glaswegians making use of their health indicates that Glasgow can invest less than the rest of Europe in health services.

Glasgow has the lowest employment rate in the UK. Therefore we should do less to invest in jobs in Glasgow than elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a very low proportion of Glasgow’s population is willing to use a bicycle for transport in the city. Therefore Glasgow should invest very little in providing for bicycle transport

One of my policy recommendations has been implemented by Glasgow City Council. Can you guess which one? That’s right. Glasgow City Council do not interpret a lack of healthy people as a reason not to invest in health services, but they would interpret a fall in the number of people cycling as a reason to cut funding for cycling infrastructure Glasgow.

(For some reason Glasgow City Council do not see the fact that Glasgow residents own a negligible number of electric cars, and indeed that fewer than half of all Glasgow households have access to a car of any kind, as a reason not to give those few who are rich enough to be able afford an electric car a gift of free storage space all over the city.)

It’s obvious enough that investment in literacy, health and jobs is not aimed at helping those who are already healthy educated people in employment, but at those who are not and who would benefit from being so — indeed, that low rates of literacy, health and employment are indicative of problems that politicians should be fixing. So why do people have such difficulty grasping the point of investing in enabling cycling?

I’ve written before about this bizarre idea so frequently cited by politicians (and incorporated into their absurd cost-benefit analysis model for transport infrastructure spending) and commentators these days — that somehow everybody has made a completely free choice, entirely uninformed by the environment around them, the options that have already been provided for, or the constraints imposed by the laws of physics; and that it’s the politician’s job simply to provide for what people have demonstrated is their choice. The absurdity of this position is encapsulated rather well in the fabricated Henry Ford quote beloved of management consultants and self-help book authors — “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Stupid though the idea is, I can understand why right-wing politicians and a libertarian government would want to pretend that everybody’s current transport use is the result of a completely free choice and so exactly reflects the modes of transport that we would most like to be using and which the government should provide for, and that therefore any government action which resulted in modal shift would be an unacceptable state intrusion into personal lifestyle choices. What really infuriates me is when campaigners — and it seems to be peculiar to cycling campaigners — hobble their own campaigns with the same stupid idea.

It is an idea that is closely tied up with those soft measures campaigns: it is the idea that there is no point in anybody asking for any kind of cycling infrastructure because there are currently too few cyclists for the request to be heard, therefore we need to focus on “more realistic” soft measures and encouraging more people to ride, until eventually there might be enough cyclists to make an effective lobby. Well if you’re designing your campaigns around policies to provide things for cyclists — to solve “the problems that cyclists face” — of course they will go unheard and ignored, just as a campaign to “solve the problems that cable car users face” would be a stupid way to go about getting a cable car built. Cyclists are “a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance“, and Cyclists campaigning on behalf of Cyclists doubly so. It’s why the Cycling Embassy was so desperately needed — a campaign for a new transport infrastructure for all, not the usual request for a bit more room for Cyclists; it’s why LCC’s Go Dutch campaign succeeds in attracting attention beyond the usual suspects; it’s why the name Cities Fit For Cycling suggests a good campaign, while the headline Save Our Cyclists didn’t.

If you think you can’t campaign for cycling infrastructure because there aren’t enough cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.

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This pretense of neutrality

On Saturday I wrote about the leaked draft of the Tories’ coalition’s draft new planning policy document:

LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this.  Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?

The line reminded me of the comment made recently by Andrew Boff, summarising the views of Conservative members of the London Assembly, who recently rejected the idea of a “road user hierarchy” which puts cyclists and pedestrians above motor vehicle users:

“It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be.”

Boff’s statement and the planning policy document imply the Tory position is that politicians should keep their own ideals out of transport planning and merely provide for the journeys that are already being made — to remain neutral, and let the people choose.  Leaving aside how this fits with the idea that creating new journeys is required to boost the economy (“roads for prosperity” under Thatcher; high-speed rail and reduced planning control under the current government), the idea that merely “making decisions to accommodate” the modes that people currently “choose” to use could be either a neutral or a desirable policy is either spectacularly naive or spectacularly dishonest.

People’s transport “choices” are informed by the real world. The fact that somebody is making a specific journey by a specific mode does mean that they choose that journey and that mode or that they wouldn’t prefer to go somewhere else or use a different mode if it were available. This should be self evident. I write from a village in Dorset where people have today “chosen” not use the bus or train.  Their choice may be informed by the fact that neither have been provided.

It is impossible to make a transport decision, even a decision to “accommodate” the status quo, which does not affect people’s choices, because people’s choices do not reflect an ideal isolated from the real world.  And “carry on with what we’ve had for fifty years” is no less a political decision than “do something different,” because what we’ve had for fifty years is itself the result of a political decision.  Cities do not naturally grow up with eight lane roads running through them; there is no objectively correct traffic signal priorities determined by the laws of physics.  These are things that we have been given as the result of political decisions, decisions which affect our choices for which modes of transport to use, and more importantly, which modes not to use, however much we might want to use them.

This is a pretty core principle which affects everything in transport.  Politicians must understand this if they are to get it right.

A couple of quick examples that passed my eyes this week (just a couple — really, any transport project or infrastructure could illustrate the principle).

First, Ian Visits reviews the history of the Docklands development, and the reason that the DLR was built.  The original idea was that the Jubilee Line would be extended through the derelict industrial lands of the East.  But the government took a look and realised that nobody was trying to make that journey — well duh, there was nothing and nobody there — and concluded that the £450 million would be wasted building a tube line for a journey that nobody made.  So the Docklands Development Corporation built the light railway instead, and of course the glass skyscrapers and posh apartments soon followed.  Suddenly there were a lot of people making journeys to and from the Docklands, so they reversed the earlier decision and extended the Jubilee Line out to it.  Now there are 64 million journeys a year on the DLR, over 40 million through Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line, and now Crossrail is on the way.  The whole point of the Docklands redevelopment was “build it and they will come”.  Saying “they don’t come so there’s no point building here” clearly missed that point.

Second, in Reversing Dr Beeching, which looked at the fact that Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) is reopening its railways, the new Kincardine Line, north of the Firth of Forth in Fife, was explored.  The line connects the town of Kincardine to Stirling and the rest of the railway network.  In the planning stages, all of the journeys made in the catchment area were analysed, and an estimate was made of how many of the journeys to Stirling would shift onto the railway.  About 150,000 journeys a year were predicted, and the line only really got built at this time because it could also be used to get coal to the nearby power station. But of course, in the first year of operation it took three times as many passengers as predicted.  Why?  Because the railway opened opportunities for people to work and shop and spend their leisure time in Stirling and Glasgow, instead of having to drive to Dunfirmline or Falkirk.  The fact that people were driving to Falkirk before the railway was built is not evidence that they wouldn’t rather have been going to Stirling by train.

There is always a difference between people’s transport ideal and the least-worst option that’s available in the real world.  That difference is latent demand.  There was latent demand for a railway to Stirling, and there was latent demand for a tube line to the Docklands.  The fact that people were making different journeys, to different places, by different modes, was not evidence that the new lines, when built, would not be used.

(This is, incidentally, why the government’s decision not to pursue a network of electric vehicle charging points, though the correct decision, was made for the wrong reason.)

London can never provide for everybody’s ideal means of getting around.  Most people in London travel in overcrowded buses and overcrowded tube trains, not because they want to, but because those are the least worse options available.  Maybe on their journey they are dreaming of an ideal world where there is room and resources enough for all of us to have our own personal helicopters, but there isn’t.  Or perhaps they have a more down-to-earth fantasy of room and resources enough for us all to drive into Central London, where congestion has magically been solved.  Perhaps they have already abandoned those dreams, and merely long for the day when they can onto a bicycle without fear of being run off the roads by the trucks and taxis.  The politician’s job is to eliminate the impossible and decide which are the least worst remaining options.  That inevitably means accommodating some people’s ideals more closely than others’.

I fear I’m labouring the point, and anyway, the Tory assembly members’ argument fails on, from the politician’s point of view, a much more basic and important point: if Tory AMs think that the people who take the bus, or the people on the tube, or the people sat in cars in traffic jams, or the people braving the streets on bicycles are content with the transport choices available to them and would like their representatives to carry on giving them more of the same, they’re clearly not talking to their electorate, who would disabuse them in a second.