Sunday, 17 October 2010

On mode fetishism.

Public transport, if effective, should do two things. Provide people with mobility, and compete with private car travel. To provide mobility, it must allow people to go to a lot of places in the minimum length of time. To compete with private car travel, it must provide competitive journey times and be comfortable. In both cases, it ought to run frequently. It doesn't so much matter what type of vehicle you're running if it manages to do this. Mode fetishism, however, takes these values and assumes that they are intrinsic to a particular mode.

Mode fetishism comes in many guises, often related to heavy marketing of a particular technology. But in Western Europe and North America, I find that it perhaps most often tends to weigh against the humble bus, which historically have been slow due to local stops and on-board fare collection, and uncomfortable due to having to pull in and out of bus stops and having poorly designed vehicles. It tends to emphasis rail, as historically that has often provided faster journeys and comfortable vehicles. This drives assumptions like "most motorists will never catch a bus".

Yet, these features are anything but intrinsic. While the differences between modes is often largely technical - the material wheels are made of, what surface they run on, how they're signalled and controlled - the way that they are treated by engineers, planners and professions of other names is what produces most of the differences that drive mode-fetishist systems. The differences these produce differ greatly depending on where you are. For example, in many places rail is faster than bus as on buses, one pays a fare to the driver while the bus waits at the stop. But in the pictures below, we see a London "bendybus" (left) on which one can board freely at any of the three doors, and a Philadelphia tram (right) on which one boards through one narrow entrance and pays the driver. 

London is also fond of bus stops built out from the kerb to the traffic lane, thus avoiding the rough ride associated with buses having to pull sharply into the kerb every 300 metres.

Because of historic treatment of buses and trains, a stance against mode fetishism is often taken as bus advocacy. But as just two of many examples show, buses can be much better than the traditional offering, and it's worth reviewing where really good buses most cost-effectively deliver mobility and compete with car travel. Equally, factors can weigh in favour of rail where a bus solution would be less appropriate or substandard. The existence of existing rail lines that can be better utilised is one; ignored with the planning of the South Line of the Leeds Trolleybus (A pretty substandard BRT) and the busway south of Miami for which rail tracks were torn up. Lack of surface capacity for bus priority is another, very relavant in European cities particularly, and above all a need for capacity that means that you want a whole lot of carriages or avery long articulated vehicle behind one driver (or, in the case of automated metros like the Vancouver Skytrain, no driver at all).

As well as existing technologies, flashy, new ones are periodically put forward, and are siezed upon by a certain sort of transport thinker that I have encountered in my three years of transport planning classes. Thinking back to a presentation given by such a thinker, the attitude is something like this: "To compete, public transport must offer something different and flashier than it does now". I am not taken in by this. The city in which I live, Leeds, has congested roads and very expensive parking, and duly about half of commuting is done by public transport, despite old, shabby and overcrowded commuter trains and buses being quite slow and making local stops. People will catch the buses and trains as long as they're quicker and/or cheaper than driving and parking and go where they need to. If they have flashy podcars whizzing around that fail to be these things, they won't take them.

In achieving the things that Public transport needs to, mobility and an alternative to cars, a good number of tools are available, and in wildly differing circumstances of different places and routes, the appropriate solution will vary. It is only to the detriment of an effective transport system to push inappropriate solutions that waste money, or don't do their job very well. Even worse is when a mode doesn't achieve the necessary things but costs a whole lot of money - not just experimental technologies, but things like the fairly run-of-the-mill metro in Catania, Italy, which manages to skirt around the downtown core and consequently carries double figures of passengers an hour.

So my challenge to anyone thinking about transport is this: Take a step back, and think about efficient, attractive, extensive, convenient and competitive transport, rather than about a single tool of the many that can be used to achieve that.


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