Monday, 31 July 2006

Environmentally disastrous public transport

Sorry to go on about it, but having recently travelled by 'public transport' to a conference in Angers, in the Loire Valley of France, I have even more disquiet about promoting 'public transport' as being environmentally friendly.

On arrival at Waterloo International I was confronted by a seething mass of travellers, most of who seemed to be en route to DisneyLand Paris. And Yes, the train was full, no doubt enabling the pundits to claim that it was more environmentally friendly than going by car or flying. But as I flashed through the countryside I wondered how many people needed to make the journey, compared with those who were making it simply because it was cheap and easy. In fact, my own decision to go to the conference was to a large extent based on the fact that it was reasonably cheap and easy to do so.

It reinforced my view that 'public' transport may be a social good, but it is not automatically environmentally good. All transport has an element of negative impact on the natural environment. In some cases, those impacts are less than other forms of transport, but in many (most?) cases efficient public transport simply encourages people to travel more, and the cheaper it is the more it is used. But this does not mean that it is environmentally friendly. Paradoxically, air transport has less impact on many terrestrial ecosystems than extensive networks of major roads, for example.

Instead of urging people to use public transport, a good environmentalist should urge people to cut out non-essential journeys. If we all did that, then public transport economics would probably change dramatically, and since most 'public transport' systems are now privatised, it would produce some interesting results. This is because most public transport systems, being privatised, and profit driven, are now to a greater or lesser extent dependent on people making more and more non-essential journeys.

I am not saying don't go to Disneyland, and I am not saying don't make journeys for pleasure. But I am saying don't think that all public transport is environmentally friendly. Train journeys have an impact on the environment -- not perhaps as much as air flights - but an impact nonetheless. They require fossil fuels to power them, and concrete and steel to ride on.

As with so many of my blogs (unfortunately) I am not offering any answers or solutions. I am trying to open up what seem to me complex issues, being treated in very simplistic ways, not only by politicians (who are often simple souls), but also by environmentalists who should know better.

A footnote: What is 'public transport'? Is it transport FOR the public (ie. Virgin trains, Ryanair, or taxis? Or is it transport OWNED BY the public (i.e British Rail, now privatised, British Overseas Airways Corporation, now BA etc)?


  1. Maybe "mass transit" is a better term than public transport. In real terms the cost of travel by bus and train has increased (by a third) in the UK in the last 20 years. Whereas the cost of travel by car and airplane has declined. The cost of travel by plane has declined dramatically. The distance travelled by car increased 15% in the 1990s whereas the distance travelled by local bus declined 11% and distance walked declined 20%. The real reason for increased travel is cheap motoring and cheap air travel not cheap public transport/mass transit. See:

  2. While mass transit is possibly better than public transport, it does not add up that well -- afterall jumbo jets are surely mass transport compared with most buses

  3. You know what?
    I'm STILL looking for us to be asking (and answering) fundamental questions. Like: why the Hell are we so mad keen to be rushing around in the first place?
    Are we actually getting to any better place through all this frenetic activity?
    The answer has - by all measures- to be: No.
    I really appreciate John & WLT raising these issues because no 'official' institutions seem to remotely consider that modern humanity might be badly psycologically diseased and befuddled by industrial progress. We've lost the plot. We are so busily and cheerfully screwing up the life-support capacities of the planet (on which we rely for every breath, let alone drop of fresh water, morcel of food etc) that we have forgotten the priorities.
    If we are so freakin' sapiens - so good we named us twice: Homo sapiens sapiens - why so much heat and noise to such poor effect?