Broken Expectations
Russell Degnan

There was an interesting article in The Age about the effect of petrol prices on public transport use. It begins with the rather spurious claim that large numbers of people will change when the price hits $1.32, which it has again this week. Not that large numbers of people won't change their habit at that price -- as a percentage of public transport users, not cars users -- but rather that it implies that commuters are rational maximizers of cost and time, when they are not.

There was a more subtle discussion of habits and economics by Becker and Posner a fortnight ago. As indicated towards the end of the first article, the supposed rapid switch to public transport occured, not because public transport became marginally better, but because it became rapidly better; and more importantly, because it strained household budgets. In other words, the expectation of relatively inexpensive motor transport was broken, and a choice had to be made.

The problem, as countless articles since have noted, is that public transport is not positioned to take advantage of an increase in customers. The trains rapidly filled with disgruntled commuters and consistently ran late or not at all. Many people would have quickly returned to their old car habit, with a reduction in other spending.

This is the biggest problem with a non-marketised public transport system. If the operators had their profits tied to consumers then the rise in customers could have been offset by a combination of higher ticket prices, and more services. Instead we got a lot of complaints and no change, either to service provision, or to most peoples' long-term travel choices.

With another rise in oil prices going on, and the likelihood of a long-term price increase to around the $1.50 mark, we can expect more people to break with habit and explore different ways of travelling to work, school and the shops. It is therefore, important to consider, now, what sort of choices people might want to make, and should make, and how to accomodate them. As Becker noted on habits:

"At first, habitual behavior is usually slow to change since past behavior exercises enormous influences over current behavior that is "habitual". But the initially slow changes induce further and more rapid changes in later behavior, so that the cumulative change may eventually be quite big."

To draw an analogy. Making a change in the area of transport choice is like pushing a coal-cart up a hill. All the policies in the past have been ineffective pushing against a full cart that wanted to stay where it was at the bottom of the hill. In the next decade though, people, not policies, will take the cart to the top of the hill, before it rapidly rolls into another gully of habit. It will do so ahead of the policy-makers though; once it is rolling it won't stop. We need to line up the wheels to ensure it goes somewhere sensible, and that means first, considering all the possible changes that could occur, if given sufficient latitude to do so.

I know where I stand here, as would any regular reader, but I'll state it again, plainly: Firstly, I think we should aim to make walking and cycling (or buggies for the elderly) the first two choices of travel for all trips, for many reasons including health, the envionment and overall cost. Secondly, we should make an efficient, and preferably cost-neutral public transport, the third choice, for trips longer than 5-10km.

This doesn't necessitate grand schemes, so much as attitude shifts and appropriate prioritising of road space to favour these modes. The change in habits, and then travel culture that will initially be brought on by a gradual but significant rise in oil prices will (hopefully) do the rest.

Sterner Matters 19th April, 2006 17:18:01   [#] 

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