Tuesday, 11 October 2005

How environmentally friendly is Public Transport?

Every time I drive to Norwich I pass a bus either travelling to or from the city. And it is invariably nearly empty. A big, double decker bus, with two or three passengers. How can this be environmentally sensible?

There is a sort of mantra that goes along the lines "buses and trains good for the environment, cars and aeroplanes bad. Private transport bad, public transport good." But hang on, aeroplanes are public transort, every bit as much as buses. And on all the flights I have been on recently, there have not been many empty seats.

I also read somewhere (I have forgotten where) that some modern trains are now so heavy, and carry relatively fewer passengers, that they are less energy efficient than a private car with four passengers.

While I am sure that public transport makes sense in urban areas, I am equally certain that it is not environmentally friendly in rural areas. Huge empty buses lumbering around tiny country lanes, do not make sense, and are only viable because of the subsidies given by local councils.

Another fact that the green movement is ignoring when constantly pressing for more and better public transport, is that this simply encourages people to make more and more uneccessary journeys. Cheap efficient public transport makes it possible for people to live further and further from their place of work. And it makes it possible to travel more frequently. Airlines such as Easy Jet and Ryan Air demonstrate this very clearly and simply. Their flights are nearly always full, because they are so cheap -- or you caould express that the other way round. But the net result is that people now travel more frequently, and further afield. There is no difference in the economics of this phenomenon, between airlines and trains, it's just that we are more readily concious of the effects it has had in the airline industry.

Like so many aspects of the energy debate we are actually ignoring many of the fundamental realities. Perhaps the most fundamental of them all is that while energy is cheap, we will continue to use is. Cheap air travel is possible, because the tax on aviation fuel is less than that on car fuel. But beyond that, the other fundamental reality is that we, in the UK are, relative to most of the world, wealthy. We have large disposable incomes, that are not needed for survival. Food is cheap, and once we have paid for the bare essentials in life, we still have, on average a lot left over. Shopping has become a leisure pursuit, an end in itself (sad, but true). And virtually everything we spend our money on has energy implications. And while the world's population continues to soar, there is no possibility of energy consumption falling. And no possibility of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. That is why preserving natural habitats is SO important. Every acre we save is one less contribution to global warming, but it is also one more step to preserving something for the future. One day the world's human population will crash. It's not if, it's when (to quote health experts discussing bird 'flu'). It may not be in my life time, but it will crash. I want to see as much of the natural world left behind for the time after that crash.


  1. Most buses I see in London are quite full - and although a 1953 Routemaster does about 16 miles to the gallon (about the same as a 2005 volvo SUV) if they carry more than 4 passengers they're more efficient than a private car. Even night buses I've got at unsociable hours have been at least half full.

    Recent news stories indicate that passenger numbers on trains are increasing:


    And trains are still regarded as the most fuel efficient way of moving people around - second only to boats.

    Although cheap flights are proving very popular, the only reason they can charge so little for flights is that they don't have to pay VAT on fuel - a government subsidy of about 7 billion pounds a year. Train companies have to pay tax on fuel - even low grade diesel.

    Sadly public transport in the countriside remains unpopular - largely thanks to lack of frequent services and high car ownership.

  2. I did say that urban public transport makes sense (environmentally). But what I am saying is that while there are good social reasons for public transport in rural areas, the environmental arguments are weak.
    And what no one seems to address is the fact that the more efficient public transport becomes, the further people travel.

  3. I forgot, aren't Routemasters being forcibly retired, and replaced by buses that are only half as fuel efficient?

  4. Make public transport government run (or even better perhaps; community run) instead of privately owned, increase the frequency of service in rural areas (perhaps by replacing large buses by several smaller ones) and adjust the pricing so that shorter journeys are more cost effective than longer ones.

    Oh, and make car use more expensive and cab fares cheaper.

    There, sorted!

    (I don't think most people would travel as far as they do to work given the choice. One of the problems is that many industries seem to be located in small areas - e.g. UK's Silicon Valley. Also, because almost everyone onws a car shops and businesses have been able to relocate to where rent is cheaper - i.e. miles away from towns and villages.)

  5. But what you are suggesting is a return to socialist values. There won't be any profit for the individual in such a scheme. A nice idea, but not likely to happen.