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?

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4 responses to “Why better choices are bad for transport policy”

  1. Randall Ghent says :

    Absolutely. The highest quality urban environments I’ve seen seem to all restrict or eliminate car use and often even bicycle use (by design rather than by decree – specifically by urban design, not usually by transport policy). It’s usually best to have a few modes that work together in an integrated system, rather than unlimited choice, as the latter can be chaotic and disjointed. The focus should instead be on providing the right choices for society (after analysing benefits/disbenefits) and on incentivising their use.

  2. Mahama Seinu says :

    Largely agree with your argument, Prof. How about the absence of better choices at all?In the context of many developing countries, various factors such as the transport externalities do not even guarantee the “better choices”. What will you recommend to deal with this especially in the tangent of achieving global sustainable goals.

    • drgregmarsden says :

      Transparency of spending and of conditions for all travellers is a good first step. Joe Zietsman at TTI is doing some work on this. Without a commitment to non-car modes there will remain a desire to own a car to get around the poor quality and unsafe networks that exist. In theory accessibility is good (informal services go to a lot of places). In reality it is a poor choice for many.

  3. Jon Foley says :

    As (sadly) the Brexit Referendum confirmed in the eyes of many. The issue about offering choice is the fundamental assumption that those choosing possess all of the facts about the issue in question and then make an informed decision based on that. As an industry we need to focus much more on ensuring that individuals are aware of the choices available, how the use of that option might benefit them personally (not altruistically) and are then provided with the tools to use that ‘choice’ in the best way. The problem for me with the ‘better choices’ is that they still exist on the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy and are often not complemented with supportive awareness and outreach programmes. If we remove enabling informed choices to be made from the equation we risk perpetuating our historic problem of providing something that is not used in the optimal way (congested one moment, empty at another moment). Dockless bikes and the relentless pursuit of shared mobility solutions are for me a great example of how that challenge continues – too many bikes in one area, not enough in another, too little parking in one area, not enough in another. Managing the demand for travel (which implicitly requires intervening in some way in individual choice) must prevail or in my opinion we will continue to have an inefficient transport system. Interested to discuss further.

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