#224 A blinding premise: public and non-motorised transport versus cars

ON-PROMOTION– McDonald’s had an interesting promotion for a fast-food chain. They encouraged customers to stock up, and win an ‘I’m loving’ it’ bike. I wonder if anyone won it, and where they’re riding it.

In most of my formal training about transport, especially passenger transport, it’s been very clear that public transport is the way to go; and cars aren’t. This however is not an accurate point of view. Only the advocacy and non-motorised transport protestants lean into this narrative quite heavily, but the policy spokes don’t tie up entirely. 

Citing Denmark, Netherlands and other high density non-motorised-transport-oriented cities around the world as champions for getting people out of cars and onto bicycles and walking. Initially citing convenience, ease of access and long-run policy foundations which lead to investment in suitable NMT infrastructure as a priority. 

The arguments seem propelled by the fact that bicycles and pedestrians improve the utilisation of space by taking up smaller land areas for high numbers of people. This makes investing in cars, buses and even light rail unreasonable for distances within the range of the average pedestrian or cyclist in an area. However, the arguments are largely subject to how land is used within and between cities, towns and neighbourhoods alike. It is also subject to the community’s propensity to commute or travel intermodally with both bicycles and public transport over using their cars. 

The sheer volume of commuters cocooned in their cars along major roads is stranded a third of the usual travel time, until the traffic peak washes them ashore right at their destination. Car use is a lucrative business, with much more obvious incentives than walking, cycling and public transport. If it is not the energy supply, it is the industries; if it is not the tax revenues, it is the levies; if it is not the flexibility, it is the status – such knots tie many households to car ownership and significant use. 

WINDSCREEN RUBBER- Could we be blinded by the rubber in our windscreens, or is there just no reason to paddle to rubber wheels? Perhaps it’s an issue of space, or culture, or preference.

What of countries with significant spatial fragmentation? Or those with self-informed public transport services operating parallel to the unscheduled ones? Or those with land-uses that are not susceptible to the type of walking and cycling culture prominent in other countries? There are some serious physical barriers to overcome, but to twist the breaks on “car culture” a lot must be said and done to the perceptions, attitudes and beliefs of commuters in general and the people who make the decisions. 

Then again, we cannot possibly neglect the role of car ownership and use in economies that need revenues, efficiency and are worming their way out of lost pieces of dignity. This is what makes the discourse so ‘unusually’ skewed toward public and non-motorised transport in the advocacy realm, while car cultures are as entrenched as mores. 

It must be acknowledged that it’s not that non-motorised transport and public transport are more important than cars, I think it is more about the fact that they are just as important

The “just as important” part is quite key, because the same value system of path dependencies for car use, taxes, levies, industries, cultures, systems and infrastructure would tow public and non-motorised transport. 

In this sense fair treatment could make it seem as if advocacy groups have succeeded in getting bicycles and pedestrians to the policy ceiling, but instead the priority would only share the same floor as the other modes. It is interesting how most people can walk, or cycle but there are fewer elements of the value systems for these two modes in particular. Public transport is a different story, but in the same book. 

*Thank you for reading.

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