Why is public transport important?

Blurred image of buses moving quickly
Posted on: February 19, 2021Posted by: Liz DavidsonComments: 0

Why is public transport important?

The second in our series of guest blogs by Vinita Nawathe

A safe, convenient, accessible, integrated public transport system that takes people where they want to go, when they want to go, should be a cornerstone of a “build back better” transport strategy.

Transport is an enabler not an end in itself (I know, tell that to classic car collectors or rail enthusiasts!). Demand for public transport is led by individual need and individual choice.  Policy decisions and targeted interventions can influence people’s needs and choices and shape public transport supply.

Presumption in favour of the private car, electric powered or otherwise, does a disservice to the millions of adults and children who do not drive.

While communications technology, and working, shopping and learning locally can reduce the need to travel (and should be encouraged) public transport continues to have a role in enabling sustainable objectives.

An environmental case for public transport

Road transport makes up around a fifth of the county’s greenhouse gas emissions and particulates from diesel have been linked to health issues and premature death.

The economic costs of congestion and the health costs of pollution are inextricably linked to the number of vehicles on the road.

To counter these, measures such as congestion charging, road tax discounts for less polluting vehicles, park and ride initiatives, and residents parking zones are mainstream in city clean air strategies.

But how we plan for the future needs to be more nuanced than simply displacing congestion and emissions.

A central objective of the DfT’s Decarbonisation Strategy is that public transport and active travel should be the natural first choice for our daily activities.

For this to happen, the public transport system, walking and cycling need to provide credible alternatives to the door-to-door convenience of the private car.

Frequent, affordable and reliable public transport – employing the cleanest available technology – can move large volumes of people for journeys that would otherwise be made in multiple vehicles.

Public transport creates fewer emissions, reduces demand for new roads and reduces road congestion.

An economic case for public transport

Public transport keeps urban areas and their economies moving.  Road congestion does more than pollute, it slows movement down.

The Natonal Travel Survey has collected information about the number of people travelling in cars or vans for different types of trip since 2002 – with fairly consistent results over 17 years.

The data shows that in normal (pre-Covid 19 ) times in England, the driver was the only person in the vehicle for over 60% of all  journeys, and over 85% of commuting or business purposes  trips made in a car or van.

One full bus can free up the space of 50 cars.

Modal shift from private vehicles to public transport eases the movement of people and goods on the road network. (It stands to reason that the converse, modal shift to private vehicles, slows roads down.)

By providing a reliable, frequent, affordable shared means of getting people to work, education, retail and leisure activities, public transport supports businesses, jobs, and the workforce of an area and the places that connect to it.

A social case for public transport

There is no operational definition of social exclusion, it is accepted that the concept is multidimensional, but a working definition of inclusion might be the removal of barriers to participating in the things people want or need to do.

For decades, academics and government departments have investigated the drivers of, and relationships between, aspects of social exclusion.

Issues from rough sleeping to health inequality, civic participation, employment, education and radicalisation have many complex and intermixed causes with marginal access to opportunity and services at their root. 

The Cabinet Office Social Exclusion Unit, set up in 1997, published a number of reports on aspects of exclusion but only investigated transport and social exclusion in 2003, having found time after time, that a big barrier to participation in a specified activity was how to get to that activity – work, education, health care, leisure, casting a vote…

Transport – between and within areas – is central to any levelling up agenda. Not everyone drives, and cycling and walking are impractical in some situations.

Affordable and accessible public transport plays a vital  role -in getting people to and from the places they want or need to be.

A post-Brexit opportunity, a post-Covid challenge

In summary, by putting public transport at its heart, a robust transport strategy that enables people to travel wherever and whenever they want or – more crucially – need to, can support environmental, economic and societal policy objectives.

When weighing up the cost of supporting public transport, policy makers must consider the wider cost to their policy goals of not doing so.

The emerging post-Brexit transport strategy in the UK has an emphasis in the decarbonisation of vehicles and the encouragement of active travel.

Covid-19 has hit mass transport hard through a combination of restrictions on unnecessary travel, closed workplaces and a fear of infection in enclosed public spaces.

A post-Covid approach to encouraging and enabling use of public transport in the UK is yet to emerge. But understanding the needs, wants and behaviours of passengers and potential passengers is key to delivering an efficient and attractive system.


In our next blog we will take a closer look at understanding passengers.

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