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What affects how people travel to work?

The European Commission has studied 112 European cities with populations between 100,000 to 500,000 residents to see what factors influence how people travel to work. The rationale is that work-related travel contributes to traffic pollution and traffic congestion and discovering ways to motivate people out of cars and onto bikes, public transport or foot could be beneficial.

The authors of the study used a mathematical model to calculate the probability of commuters choosing either car, bicycle, motorbike, walking or public transport. They also looked at the length of the cycle network in the city, the price of public transport, petrol prices and more. Unsurprisingly, the results are as predictable as a karate match between the late Mother Theresa and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Let’s have a look at each of the findings:

Public transport is used more often in cities with larger populations and higher numbers of buses

The Commission doesn’t clarify here whether this is more per person or more often because there are more people. They also don’t give a proportion of buses, i.e. when there are diminishing marginal returns with the number of buses per person in the city. They also don’t say whether the number of bus-only lanes affects commuter behaviour.

Public transport is used less often in cities where monthly bus tickets are more expensive

This seems to be an obvious assumption, and we’re assuming that by ‘expensive’ they mean relatively expensive because expensive in Spain is different to expensive in the UK. It’s reasonable logic to assume that commuters have a finite amount of money and that there will be a point at which public transport becomes too expensive and they walk, or buy a bike, or carpool or use other methods such as telecommuting where possible.

Public transport is used less often in cities where there are more days of rain annually

Given that public transport isn’t door-to-door, you have to walk through the prevailing weather to get to a bus stop or train station. Not all bus stops and train stations have good weatherproofing. There will be a point at which using a car is far more appealing than walking half a mile through driving rain to wait for the two buses that come along at the same time after the first one is late. Light drizzle is OK; torrential downpours not so much. There’s no mention of whether snow, hail, sleet or gales affect usages positively or negatively, although gales and snow are certain to affect usage of bicycles and motorbikes, possibly pushing up public transport usage, or pushing down bike and motorbike ownership. The report overview doesn’t say.

Public transport is used less often in cities where there are higher proportions of elderly residents and families with children

This implies that public transport is predominantly used for commuting to work. If there is a lower proportion of people commuting to work, then public transport doesn’t get used as much. Elderly people might use public transport because they’re less likely to own a vehicle, but probably not every day. Families tend to dislike the inconvenience of public transport, and costs start to be a factor when you have, say, four people to pay for to do one journey.

In cities with larger student populations, people use public transport more, and are more likely to cycle and walk

This is simple common sense. Students are invariably poor, so tend not to have cars. Universities are often located in areas where it’s difficult and/or expensive to park a car. Governments ensure that universities are well-connected public transport hubs. Using public transport is also a good way of maximising travelling time because you can be reading, typing up notes or playing Bejeweled. The report doesn’t define what a ‘student’ is – is it any child from 5 to university leaving age, or just those in tertiary education?

Commuting by car and motorcycle was more common in cities where more individuals owned such vehicles

This seems quite obviously, but correlation isn’t causation. You can’t ride to work on a motorbike or in a car if you don’t own one. You’ll end up making do with cribbing lifts of your mates or using public transport.

Wealthier cities had higher proportions of people driving but also walking to work and taking public transport

We’re not sure what ‘wealthier’ actually means. It stands to reason that if there are more wealthy people, car ownership would be higher. But why would walking and public transport be higher? Could this be a demographic reason? It doesn’t explain why bike and motorbike usage would be less.

Motorcycles were more likely to be used when petrol prices were low

The implication here is that a person who owns a motorbike doesn’t also own a car (low petrol prices would encourage car use). When petrol prices are high, motorbike users would take public transport, walk or bike. You wouldn’t drive a car if you had a motorbike when petrol prices are low. That’s not to say that people who own a motorbike don’t also own a car.

The likelihood of commuters cycling to work increased with the length of the cycling network (calculated as the combined length of cycle lanes and separate cycle paths)

Another fairly obvious conclusion. If the network is there, people will use it. However, it won’t necessarily radically improve the safety of cyclists because the cycling network often isn’t in the final mile, i.e. the last little bit of getting to the office or factory, or getting home.

Discouraging car use

The Commission is overtly anti-car and suggested that you could simply make car ownership unpleasant, such as by hiking registration fees, increasing fuel tax, or hard wiring a sample of Margaret Thatcher saying ‘The Lady’s not for turning’ every time you indicate. They also point out that public transport can be subsidised and roads made more bike-friendly by implementing cycle lanes.

Ultimately, this study, which undoubtedly cost a lot of money, only replicated (i.e. confirmed) the results of a number of other smaller studies. The authors of the study did not consider some factors which could play a large part in overall car usage such as commuting that extends beyond city boundaries, population density and urban sprawl. You can read an overview of the report here (PDF, opens in a new window).

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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