Why better choices are bad for transport policy
Better buses, a new tram network, segregated cycle lanes and improved pedestrian areas. I am a big fan of all of those options as part of the mix to allow cities to move people around in ways which work for the economy and the environment. I must therefore be in favour of improving travel choices right?
Of course, the idea of providing better travel conditions for people to travel has to be a good thing. However, that’s pretty much where I go cold on the idea of transport policy being about ‘better choices’. Choice is largely associated with enabling individuals to “do the right thing”. It is here that the logic breaks down in ways which go on to backfire on policy.
In the Commission on Travel Demand report, we looked at evidence on the travel of younger people from Kiron Chatterjee and Noreen McDonald. It shows a very significant reduction in miles travelled by car by 18-30 year olds over the past two decades. The reasons for this include delayed parenting, staying in education longer, rising costs of insurance, increased urbanisation, changing employment patterns, increased use of social media and ICT. They conclude that “it is not possible to quantify the importance of each of these factors or to say the order in which they began to exert an influence. They should be treated as interconnected phenomena”. So where does choice feature in this? These are largely structural changes so the extent to which choice explains change is really quite limited.
Work by Scott Le Vine and colleagues also looked at changing commute patterns and found that we make 20% fewer commute trips in the UK than back in the mid 1990s. This is again down to a complex mix of changing employment structures, increased female participation in the workplace, more people working for themselves, more people working from multiple places and some increase in home working. These changes not ascribable to individual choice so even though individuals make a choice about their travel this again does not equate to choice explaining what they do.
So, the problem comes when the vast majority of changes in travel behaviour are for ‘non transport reasons’ and not because of travel preferences and ‘better choices’. When you then try to play back the “sustainable choice” agenda to people there is therefore a very mixed reaction. “I didn’t choose for house prices to be beyond my reach”, “I didn’t choose to be put on a four day week” “I didn’t choose for the nearest healthcare facility to close”. There is also an important strand of work which recognises that some people are driving even though they cannot afford to do so given other indicators of material deprivation. Driving is not so much a choice here but a necessity to overcome job insecurity and lack of security of housing tenure.
So, where does this leave us in terms of policy goals? My instinctive reaction is to suggest that we should be focussed on outcomes and so should be delivering better neighbourhoods, healthier citizens and more productive cities. This will mean privileging some modes over others – i.e. promoting some choices whilst reducing others (another reason why choice falls down as an argument!), some user groups over others, some areas over others and some technologies over others. It makes us have to argue what we are doing things for rather than hiding behind a notion that we can carry on with ever wider choices in a world without trade-offs. I think choice has been a convenient fig leaf which has been used to cover up repeated failings to tackle the major externalities of transport of the past decades. Perhaps its time to choose a different path?