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Are private cars the ideal transport?

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  • Eric Britton
    From: sustran-discuss-bounces+eric.britton=ecoplan.org@list.jca.apc.org [mailto:sustran-discuss-bounces+eric.britton=ecoplan.org@list.jca.apc.org] On Behalf Of
    Message 1 of 9 , Sep 8, 2008
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      From: sustran-discuss-bounces+eric.britton=ecoplan.org@...
      On Behalf Of Todd Alexander Litman
      To: Jonathan Richmond

      While it may be obvious to some of us that current transport planning
      results in "excessive" automobile travel, justifying policy reforms
      to reduce per capita vehicle travel, encourage shifts to more
      resource efficient modes, and encourage more accessible and
      multi-modal land use patterns, I don't think this concept is
      universally accepted. In fact, the idea that society is better off
      with less mobility seems counterintuitive to many people - they see
      it as a burden, an example of large, short-term economic sacrifices
      made for the sake of uncertain, long-term future environmental
      benefits. Even a lot of experts, such as energy policy analysts,
      assume that any reduction in vehicle travel is harmful to consumers
      and businesses. I think it is very useful to be able to show that
      there are also strong economic justifications for policy and planning
      reforms that reduce motor vehicle travel.

      Best wishes,
      -Todd Litman

      At 12:23 PM 9/7/2008, Jonathan Richmond wrote:

      >My reaction to the original posting was "so what?"
      >I have a similar reaction again now.
      >The issue is not one primarily of economic analysis, but of
      >political and institutional constraints on many levels -- from
      >ineffective bureaucracies to political machinery that puts a lot of
      >weight on pleasing the motorist lobby.
      >We could of course repeat the whole discussion about why people do
      >in fact obtain extraordinary value from automobility and ask why
      >public transport has not been developed to offer those sorts of
      >benefits, but I don't think that is the point here.
      >The point is that if the current situation is to change then
      >political and institutional structures have to change, and
      >discussion should revolve increasingly around how to bring that about.
      > --Jonathan!
      >On Sun, 7 Sep 2008, Todd Alexander Litman wrote:
      >>For more detailed analysis of the full costs of
      >>different forms of transport, and the benefits of
      >>shifts from automobile to alternative modes, see
      >>the report "Transportation Cost and Benefit
      >>Analysis" (www.vtpi.org/tca ). Under urban-peak
      >>conditions, automobile use is particularly costly
      >>while other modes are relatively efficient. By
      >>the way, this report is currently being updated,
      >>so a new version should be posted in about a month.
      >>Unfortunately, current transportation markets are
      >>distorted in various ways that favor mobility
      >>over accessibility and automobile transport over
      >>other modes, resulting in economically excessive
      >>automobile travel, a less diverse and efficient
      >>transportation system, and more sprawl than is
      >>optimal. Described more positively, there are
      >>many potential economic, social and environmental
      >>benefits to market and planning reforms that
      >>encourage more efficient transportation. This is
      >>discussed in my paper, "Socially Optimal
      >>Transport Prices and Markets"
      >>(www.vtpi.org/sotpm.pdf ). My analysis indicates
      >>that in a more efficient market, consumers would
      >>choose to own fewer cars, drive 30-50%
      >>less, rely more on alternative modes, and be
      >>better off overall as a result. This is certainly
      >>true of developed countries, and is probably
      >>equally true in developing countries.
      >>Best wishes,
      >>-Todd Litman
      >>At 01:00 AM 9/7/2008, Saiful Alam wrote:
      >>>Are private cars the ideal transport?
      >>>Let us return to the private car. Whatever
      >>>convenience and comfort it provides comes at
      >>>various costs. Cars are the main source of
      >>>pollutants worldwide. There is no such thing as
      >>>a clean car; cars just vary in the amount they
      >>>pollute. Despite increasingly stringent
      >>>emissions control standards over the decades in
      >>>the US, cars pollute more than they used
      >>>to?because people are driving farther.
      >>>It is difficult for us to appreciate just how
      >>>much cars pollute. The air in Dhaka City, after
      >>>all, improved dramatically after the banning of
      >>>two-stroke baby taxis, and again with the
      >>>introduction of unleaded fuel. However, this is
      >>>by no means an indication that the air in Dhaka
      >>>is clean. Any trip to the countryside is a
      >>>reminder of the pleasure of breathing clean
      >>>air. Even in Dhaka, if we wake up early and
      >>>take a walk, we can experience a bit of the
      >>>pleasure of fresh air; as each car passes, we
      >>>can also understand just how much each car
      >>>pollutes the air. As the streets fill with
      >>>cars, the pollution rises. On hartal days,
      >>>despite large numbers of people moving about the
      >>>city, the air is fresh and the city (violence
      >>>aside) is quiet. Cars?and the wide paved roads
      >>>needed to accommodate them?also emit a great
      >>>deal of heat, making Dhaka even more insufferable in the many hot months.
      >>>Cars also are the main cause of noise
      >>>pollution. A full 97% of students in Dhaka in a
      >>>survey on noise pollution said that their
      >>>studying is disrupted by car horns; 96% of the
      >>>general public interviewed mentioned car horns
      >>>as the main cause of noise pollution in
      >>>Dhaka.[1] When rickshaws were on strike in
      >>>October 2004, there were no rickshaws on the
      >>>streets, yet the streets were as noisy as ever.
      >>>We would argue that since cars only transport
      >>>roughly 10-20% of travelers, they should only
      >>>have access to 10-20% of road space, for moving
      >>>and parking?and should respect the rest of
      >>>users, as well as the right to some peace and
      >>>quiet of all the people working and living next to roads.
      >>> Presumably one component of civilization is
      >>>respecting the rights of others. The attitude
      >>>of drivers?who represent the wealthiest portion
      >>>of society?that they alone should have full
      >>>access to roads?is anti-democratic,
      >>>anti-civilization, and disturbingly elitist. A
      >>>society in which people fail to respect the
      >>>rights of others, and in which the rich believe
      >>>they should have special privileges on the
      >>>roads as well as in every other aspect of life,
      >>>is a society destined to fall into crime,
      >>>selfishness, viciousness, and lack of the
      >>>neighborly friendliness that allows people to live comfortably together
      >>>Syed Siful Alam Shovan
      >>Todd Alexander Litman
      >>Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org)
      >>Phone & Fax 250-360-1560
      >>1250 Rudlin Street, Victoria, BC, V8V 3R7, CANADA
      >>?Efficiency - Equity - Clarity?
      with a focus on developing
      >>countries (the 'Global South').
      >Jonathan Richmond
      >Transport Adviser to the Government of Mauritius
      >Ministry of Public Infrastructure, Land Transport and Shipping
      >New Government Centre, Level 4
      >Port Louis
      >+230 707-1134 (Mauritius mobile: most reliable way to reach me)
      >+1 (617) 395-4360 (US phone number rings at home -- call me in
      >Mauritius for the price of a call to the US).
      >e-mail: richmond@...

      Todd Alexander Litman
      Victoria Transport Policy Institute (www.vtpi.org)
      Phone & Fax 250-360-1560
      1250 Rudlin Street, Victoria, BC, V8V 3R7, CANADA
      "Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"
    • Michael Yeates
      Thanks Eric ... Surely one important point here is to remember that high car ownership is not necessarily related to high car use ... as I understand some
      Message 2 of 9 , Sep 8, 2008
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        Thanks Eric ...

        Surely one important point here is to remember that high car ownership is not necessarily related to high car use ... as I understand some reliable research and/or anecdotal data from NL, Germany and Switzerland shows. This is certainly the case from promotional material from the NL.

        The large scale population data which includes extreme excess use of cars per capita hides quite different data at individual and precinct level in areas or locations where there is much less or virtually no use of cars ... not necessarily related to car ownership.

        It is in effect much the same situation as shown by high bicycle ownership which does not necessarily lead to high cycling use (instead of use of a car) as for example from data from the USA, Australia, etc.

        It is the availability and dare I say it, the perceived "safety+convenience" (and inherent qualities eg enjoyment) that more than anything else determines the choice between a ranges of modes (a point also made in the interview with Rex Burkholder).

        It is the individual's "perception" and the available practical potential for other-than-car travel that has to be addressed (eg through "individualised marketing" and TravelSmart etc) and where necessary, the reality not only accepted but also addressed eg by road management and public transport authorities so there is a god match between perception and reality.

        BUT ... like any other "product", there is no point in over-selling or promoting something that when "bought" is not up to expectation.

        And the quotations from Sam Johnson below ... excellent. It is what you can hear and see and smell while walking or cycling that enlivens the trip.


        At 11:51 PM 8/09/2008, Eric Britton wrote:

        There are several basic contradictions here that we need to come to grips with in answering this question in a useful manner.

        The first is that for much of the past and in many parts of the world “they” – think of them as the “car system” -- were and indeed still often are very good at what they do. Or at least are largely perceived as such. And if we lose sight of this, we will not win the battle of the transition which must now take place. It will not be won by rhetorical flourishes, nodding of heads and mumbling agreement within the choir.

        In this context, also need to keep in view the enormous technical, entrepreneurial and resource capabilities of the car industry. Like it or not, they are an important part of the solutions. Though in this respect we need to keep in mind the statement of Arthur Okun, then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, when he wrote:  “Two cheers for the market, not three”.  That third cheer being of course for wise governance, which is the way in which we put these entrepreneurial and technical competences to work for society as a whole.

        The underlying challenge, as we all here now very well, is that despite the massive changes we are enduring in our lives, in our cities and on our sweltering planet, the private car continues to be for a vast majority of all people a beautiful dream. It is this dream, and the fact that is it so utterly in contrast with the terribly harsh realities that are now upon us, both at the level of the planet and certainly in our cities, that needs to be addressed.

        That car I so dearly covet is in my mind’s eye a magic carpet. I can hop in it and it will seamlessly, effortlessly and quickly transport me to exactly where I want to go and when I want to get there. I arrive, leave in front of the door, fresh, smiling and exactly on time, a man in charge.

        The truth lies otherwise. And the communication of this truth, and of the ways of dealing with it, is our job. Because if we do not do it, who will?

        *           *           *

        For the history minded, here is how Sam Johnson made the contract between the traveler’s dream and the realities, some years back

        He that travels in theory has no inconveniences; he has shade and sunshine at his disposal, and wherever he alights finds tables of plenty and looks of gaiety. These ideas are indulged till the day of departure arrives, the chaise is called, and the progress of happiness begins.

        A few miles teach him the fallacies of imagination. The road is dusty, the air is sultry, the horses are sluggish, and the postilion brutal. He longs for the time of dinner that he may eat and rest. The inn is crowded, his orders are neglected, and nothing remains but that he devour in haste what the cook has spoiled, and drive on in quest of better entertainment. He finds at night a more commodious house, but the best is always worse than he expected.

        Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 58, in Universal Chronicle, London, 26 May 1759

        This is the message that we need to get across. Reality.
      • Theo Schmidt
        ... I don t know about the second, would have thought the reverse, but the first is certainly true. It s plain human nature. Years ago I lived in a tiny
        Message 3 of 9 , Sep 9, 2008
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          Chris Bradshaw wrote:
          > Private cars both cause the breakdown of
          > share vehicle systems, and are the beneficiaries of that breakdown...

          I don't know about the second, would have thought the reverse, but the
          first is certainly true. It's plain human nature.

          Years ago I lived in a tiny village, Evershot in Dorset. This had a
          well-stocked village shop with post office which lots of villagers
          visited every single day or several times a day, being only some seconds
          walk from most houses. But it had a lousy bus service, only about one or
          two a day, and steep hills for cycling.

          An ideal place to put up the pinboard of the "Evershot Transport Club",
          which I founded. Using pins and notes, people where supposed to put up
          small notices if they required a ride or could offer rides in cars. In
          addition I sent forms for regular trips to every single villager.

          It was an utter and dismal failure. Not a *single* shared trip resulted
          even though everybody thought the club was a good idea. I myself, who
          had a car at the time, was unable to share or get a single trip. People
          - in our culture anyway - simply don't want to share if there is the
          *slightest* inconvenience. When you offer a trip, even if your passenger
          pays you, you have the cost of not being able to cancel your trip at
          short notice, of having to share with a perhaps unpleasant person, etc.
          These costs are immediate, whereas the costs of operating a car are
          indirect and in arrears.

          Much more advanced share-systems in Switzerland years later, using
          internet, membership and vetting schemes and special stopping places,
          all also failed. (What does work is time-slot exclusive sharing of

          There is a parallel in the world of free software, which is public
          shared software, and even free content. This is overall much better than
          private ("proprietary") software, which is usually also overpriced, yet
          I bet that 90% of the intelligent people on this list use e.g. Microsoft
          and Apple thingies. The cost of the small inconveniences associated with
          free software (e.g. lots of choice) is higher than the few hundreds for
          the commercial "private" solution. You get what you pay for, you don't
          have to share, you can blame the manufacturer when it doesn't work.

          Without special tricks. it is a lot more difficult to give away
          something people don't want or know, like free knowledge or free trips,
          than sell something they *think* they need, like certain fads or brand
          name items - or cars.

          Therefore psychologically private cars *are* the ideal transport - in
          rural areas and for the able anyway - even if we all agree that present
          day cars cost far too much: resources, space, health, even life.

          Theo Schmidt
        • Eric Britton
          On Behalf Of Paul Barter Sent: Friday, 19 September 2008 09:54 Sorry to come in late on this conversation. This relates quite closely to some work I have been
          Message 4 of 9 , Sep 19, 2008
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            On Behalf Of Paul Barter
            Sent: Friday, 19 September 2008 09:54

            Sorry to come in late on this conversation. This relates quite closely to

            some work I have been doing (on which I fruitfully sought Chris's feedback a

            few months back).


            I have written a blog post about it here (


            which links to a longer paper and to a poster.


            The basic idea is this:


            The way cars are possessed has not had the close attention it deserves. The

            primary way of gaining access to cars has been assumed to be via owning one.

            Possession has thus been taken for granted, preventing us from seeing it as

            possibly problematic.


            However, the link between car use and car possession is eroding, in both

            practice and in theory. High mobility had been widely assumed to require a

            car but it has recently become possible to envisage excellent mobility

            through an integrated package of services and modes, including convenient

            access to cars, without needing to possess one. This reveals possession (and

            its sharp contrast with being car-free) as a source of 'rigidities' that

            inhibit active choice making in travel.


            Chris Bradshaw's ideas on 'metered access to shared cars' (MASC) as well as

            various New Mobility ideas obviously resonate.



            Paul Barter




            2008/9/8 Chris Bradshaw <c_bradshaw@...>


            > >

            We would argue that since cars only transport roughly 10-20% of



            > >

            they should only have access to 10-20% of road space, for moving and

            > >

            parking—and should respect the rest of users, as well as the right to

            > some

            > >

            peace and quiet of all the people working and living next to roads.


            > This

            is a good point: equity for all travellers.  It applies not just to

            > space

            for travel and parking, but the various forms of pollution.  Under

            > the

            > right

            conditions, cars produce, per passenger, less pollution and noise

            > than


            larger public-transit vehicles.


            > The

            X-transit discussion here diverges over whether smaller vehicles should

            > be visualized

            as large cars or small buses.  The latter tends to fail


            because the driver cost is spread over so few passengers, which government

            > can

            justify only if it serves very small, needy populations, which in turn

            > makes

            frequency so poor.  But if seen as the former, the service, mediated

            > by

            cell-phone matching, means that every driver's empty seats are



            > as

            long as his route coincides enough with the person needing a ride.  Such

            > a

            scheme relieves the system of driver costs.  But cars are private, so no

            > go.


            > The

            car fails by being the second-best mode for most trips, rarely the

            > best.

            > This

            is because it is used from destination to destination, a tool of


            mobility _and_ access (only the short walk to its parking space is


            excepted).  It needs to be driven through walk-first environments because

            > it

            > is

            privately owned and its owner expects it to be ready-and-willing 'acap'

            > (as

            close as possible).


            > >

            A society in which people fail to respect the rights of others, and in

            > >

            which the rich believe they should have special privileges on the roads

            > as

            > >

            well as in every other aspect of life, is a society destined to fall into

            > >

            crime, selfishness, viciousness, and lack of the neighborly friendliness

            > >

            that allows people to live comfortably together


            > With

            cars being private, they too often are occupied by only the owner,


            leaving the other 4-6 seats empty (except when used for storage for




            'effects').  The owner, rich or poor, sees this privacy as his right.  The

            > car's

            footprint is 'amortized' only over one traveler.


            > The

            relationship to these negative social trends is not just that of car


            causing them, but reflecting the breakdown. Private cars both cause the


            breakdown of share vehicle systems, and are the beneficiaries of that


            breakdown ("I have to have my own car.  Transit is too infrequent, and


            walking and cycling are too dangerous."


            > We

            can never share the roads unless we find a way to share all the vehicles

            > used

            on them.  This is more common in the so-called underdeveloped


            countries.  While they are trying to copy the developed countries' idea of


            'success,' the reverse should be the situation.


            > When

            people go into the public realm, it should be to mix with others.

            > Being

            in a private car is not providing that contact, not producing the


            humility and tolerance societies need.  All governments, who are dependent

            > on

            these attitudes, should have a bias in favour of sharing the corridors

            > and

            the vehicles used on them.



            Supporting the private-car regime is a form of societal suicide.


            > Chris

            Bradshaw, Ottawa


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