Friday, 5 May 2006

Public transport

Although I have written about it before, I still have not got satisfactory explanations as to why public transport is such a good thing for the environment.

Improving public transport is good for the environment, cheap public transport takes pressure off the environment, or so the mantra goes. However, while a good public transport system may be highly beneficial, socially, its environmental benefits are less clear cut. The problem is that if public transport is cheap and efficient, then more people use it. A good example is Ryan Air. Under any modern day definition, this is public transport, comparable to, say, any of the privatised London bus companies. And because it is cheap and efficient, plenty of people use it. But they mostly use it for journeys they would not otherwise make. The same is true of Eurostar rail travel. Of course there are other issues to do with air pollution and air travel, but the underlying principle is there. And if commuter rail travel is made cheap and efficient, people simply travel further, and live remotely from their place of work. The World Land Trust office is based in rural Suffolk, and this is possible, in part because the rail travel to London (where many important meetings are held) is extremely cheap.

Way back in the 1970s, I think it was transport campaigner Mick Hamer, who told me that as long ago as 1912 the average commute time was about an hour, and that in 1975 it was still about the same -- but people just travelled further -- I may have got the exact figures wrong, but I am sure the principle is right. The train journey to Norwich is now fast and efficient. Consequently there are plenty of people who commute daily to London. While some of the trains are more efficient than private cars, in terms of energy, a half empty train is often far less efficient than a modern energy efficient private car with two passengers. And in any case, the private car is often still needed to get to the public transport network.

In London cheap travel passes giving unlimited access to the underground network mean that people use the system for journeys of one or two stops, instead of walking.

While energy is cheap, we are all going to continue to use too much, and while populations continue to grow, we will continue to have an increasing impact on the environment. Only by having negative population growth can we ever expect to improve the natural environment in the long term. Cheap public transport is not a solution.

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