New research shows people can be persuaded out of their cars

Politicians all too often give up transport as a hopeless cause. Alistair Darling, the present incumbent at the Department for Transport, argues frequently that economic growth inevitably leads to increased transport demand and all the related negative consequences.

Transport, therefore, has been seen as the department from hell by politicians who think that they are powerless to do anything about a situation that is inevitably deteriorating. The message from ten years work the ESRC Transport Studies Unit is, however, far more optimistic. Broadly, it suggests that there is much more scope to make changes in transport policy that will, say, encourage people out of their cars and on to public transport, than had previously been realised. There is, therefore, an alternative to the politics of despair.

The Transport Studies Unit has tried to look at transport in a new way. The trouble with transport research is that it tends to examine trends in an empirical way, using big numbers and long time periods, and the results tend to suggest that nothing much can be done to change these trends. However, when the Transport Studies Unit began to look at evidence from a ‘micro’ rather than ‘macro’ perspective, the results were found to be much more complex, showing that subtle but significant variations are missed out in the empirical approach.

For example, the conventional view of commuters is that they are the same people travelling on the same trains every day. In fact, there is considerable churn. In an average year, about 3 per cent of journeys to work are by rail. However, while that figure is relatively consistent over time, very few people commute year in and year out. Only about 1 per cent of the total population used rail in every year out of the past ten but 8 per cent of all workers used rail as their main method of transport for at least one year out of the decade.

There are similar patterns in other modes and there is much churn on a daily basis. For example, surveys show that vehicles making up the traffic stream are not, in general, the same set of cars from day to day. Up to 50 per cent of the cars on a given day will not be present at the same time on the following day, and many will not be there at all. There are big seasonal differences, too, with over 20 per cent of employees changing their main mode of journey in the summer. Therefore, those familiar pictures of traffic jams or crowded commuter trains are deceptive in that they suggest we all do the same things every day, year in year out. We do not. It just happens that a whole lot of different people make decisions that results in similar, but not the same, type of congestion every day.

The reason that this phenomenon is important for transport policy is that it suggests that behaviour is more influenceable than may at first be thought. If people are not doing the same thing in the same way all the time, they are more open to change and they can be influenced by the right stimuli. An even more unexpected finding is that this type of strong variation over time even exists for something as rigid as car ownership which obviously requires a major investment from the purchaser. Within a two or three year period, net increases in car ownership of 2-6 per cent can mask a much more complex pattern with as many as a quarter of the population changing its car ownership level, and around 10 per cent of those, mostly second car owners, reducing the number of cars they have.

Transport policies can, therefore, be tailored to influence this behaviour. In Belgium, for example, the offer of two years’ free public transport season tickets for people getting rid of their cars has been taken up by 26,000 people. Domestically, the most interesting example is the £5 congestion charge introduced in London in February 2003. The policy proved to be far more effective as a transport measure, reducing the number of cars entering the central zone by 38 per cent, and less effective than expected as a way of raising revenue precisely because it put so many people off driving.

This is part of a wider phenomenon highlighted by the Transport Studies Unit which suggests that elasticities for transport are greater than expected. The elasticity is the rate of change of a behaviour in relation to price variations. Historically, it has been thought elasticities were rather low – in other words that people did not respond much to changes in price. However, the work of the Unit suggests that elasticities are higher, which means that policy changes such as putting up the price of fuel or reducing prices of public transport will have a greater effect than expected.

People also respond to changes in transport infrastructure more readily than previously thought. This is particularly true when road space is reduced, whether through some incident such as a bridge failure or earthquake or as a result of a deliberate policy such as the City of London’s ring of plastic, some traffic – as much as 40 per cent in some cases – just seems to disappear, as people choose other modes or times to travel.

Not everything runs smoothly, however. Transport policy seems to suffer particularly strongly from the law of unintended consequences. Take park and ride schemes, the pride and joy of many local authorities seeking to reduce congestion in their town centres. The idea, of course, is to attract the drivers out of their cars and onto buses. But these new bus passengers are by no means solely people who would formerly have driven into town. Many, instead, had previously used the bus for longer journeys and now drive to the park and ride to take a shorter ride into town. In Oxford this phenomenon was particularly marked with around a third of users of park and ride having previously used a conventional bus.

However, all of this suggests that the counsel of despair by politicians is misplaced. They can make a difference, encouraging people to shift between different modes of travel, but only if they are brave enough to try and, essentially, to make motoring more expensive and public transport cheaper. As Phil Goodwin, who has headed the research team concludes, ‘the effects of transport policy on behaviour are bigger than expected. But they are also more complex than expected and take several years to work through – and not all in the intended direction.’

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