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Factors affecting how people travel to work

The European Commission has been spending a lot of money researching how to get people out of cars. Looking at 112 European cities with populations between 100,000-500,000 they investigated how people travel to work. They contend that travelling to work is a major source of pollution and traffic congestion, so the authors wanted to use a mathematical model to calculate the probability of commuters choosing one mode of transport over another.

The modes of transport considered were bicycle, motorbike, car, walking and public transport, and they looked at petrol prices, the length of the cycle network in the city, public transport prices and so on. Unsurprisingly, the results are as predictable as a Mike Tyson/Justin Bieber boxing match.

  • Public transport is used more often in cities with larger populations and higher numbers of buses. (They don’t say what they mean by ‘more often’, whether it’s more often per person, or more often because there are more people, and whether that’s in relation to the number of buses).
  • Public transport is used less often in cities where monthly bus tickets are more expensive, where there are more days of rain annually and where there are higher proportions of elderly residents and families with children. (All obvious assumptions except the one about elderly residents because you would expect them to use public transport. However, it does say a higher proportion of elderly residents and they wouldn’t be commuting to work every day).
  • Wealthier cities had higher proportions of people driving but also walking to work and taking public transport. (They don’t say what ‘wealthier cities’ means)
  • In cities with larger student populations, people use public transport more, and are more likely to cycle and walk. (This is obvious, because students are, in general, strapped for cash and universities are often the centre of public transport hubs given that parking at them is mostly difficult or expensive).
  • Commuting by car and motorcycle was more common in cities where more individuals owned such vehicles. (I know that correlation isn’t causation, but this seems fairly obvious)
  • Motorcycles were more likely to be used when petrol prices were low. (This implies that people who would usually walk or take public transport also own a motorbike, because if petrol prices are low, it wouldn’t discourage car use)
  • 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). (Again, kind of seems like common sense, I suppose unless the cycle lanes have no relation to the central business district).

The commission has suggested that to get people out of cars you could simply make owning a car very unpalatable, such as high registration fees or being made to listen to the sound of ice caps melting and baby penguins perishing to death. Public transport can be subsidised, and road space can be reallocated from cars to bikes (even though that doesn’t necessarily make bikes safer if the cycle lanes don’t go the whole distance). Of course, we’ve recently had urban cycling in the news with the unfortunate death of the cyclist on the corner of The Strand and Parnell Rise in Auckland. The good news is that more bike lanes are being created, but it will be impossible to make cycle lanes that go absolutely everywhere – even Portland, Oregon, the world’s second most bikeable city, and one that I have actually cycled around, doesn’t have that.

Despite looking at 112 cities and, no doubt, spending an inordinate amount of money, the authors admit they basically replicated on a larger scale some previous smaller studies, but did not consider commuting that extends beyond city boundaries, which they propose is more likely to increase car travel.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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