Being Productive On The Bus

Michael Lewyn's picture

In a recent blog post (at Steven Polzin argues that drivers are more productive because they get places faster.  His post, in turn, generated an avalanche of critiques noting the negative externalities of auto travel (e.g. pollution, death and injury from traffic accidents, health costs of obesity, etc.).

But what I'd like to address is something else: the positive productivity benefits of transit use.  Let's suppose that it takes me 30 minutes to reach destination X on the bus, and 15 minutes by car.  Obviously, the car is more productive.  Right?

Not necessarily.  On the bus, I can read and write.  In my job, reading and writing are fairly major parts of my work, so being able to read is really, really important.*

In addition, I can safely make cell phone calls and text messages on the bus; such activity, although common for drivers, is nevertheless unwise.   If you are tempted to use a car as a phone booth or restaurant, please google "distracted driving"; you will learn that such behavior is controversial to say the least.   

And if I have to walk to a transit stop, this is actually productive time as well, insofar as it brings exercise into my day.

Admittedly, not all transit trips are equally productive: on an overcrowded transit vehicle, I may have to stand, thus making it more difficult for me to engage in any of the rewarding activities discussed above.  In my experience, there has been a tradeoff between the overall quality of the transit system and the ability to get a seat of my own.  In cities with mediocre transit systems, I spend more time waiting for buses and getting to my destination (bad) but have no difficulty getting a seat (good); an inadequate transit system, by scaring off customers, may actually make transit service more physically comfortable in this respect.  In downtown Toronto or midtown Manhattan, travel time is more likely to be competitive with driving (good) but I might have to stand up (bad).  


*Granted, you can listen to "books on tape" in a car, but audiobooks are not an adequate substitute for real books for two reasons.  First, only the most popular books are on tape; for example, a brief look at reviewed no audiobook versions of anything by Andres Duany, Sam Staley or Jane Jacobs- to name three of the more popular writers on planning issues.  Second, the necessity of paying attention to other drivers limits my ability to get very much out of the book. 

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Studied for my license on the train

I studied for all my 9 California architectural licensing exams while on a 50-minute light-rail commute from Long Beach to L.A. Not that all my studying was done on the train (I still did some studying on the weekends) but I found the 50 minutes extremely productive. When I would finally get home I had time to spend with my one-year old and spouse. I always felt like I was the luckiest guy in the world by having that commute. And I passed all my tests the first time!

Most productive part of my day

Great post, Michael. I wrote about a similar experience at today. Check it out if you get a chance.

David Leazenby
Principal, Milhaus Development, LLC

UK study on productive use of transit time

Glad to see this response; I commented extensively on Mr. Polzin's post in disagreement with several of his points, especially the notion that all travel time is created equal.

Richard Florida just posted on the Creative Class blog about the decline in car usage among younger people:

He linked to a UK study on Science Direct that examines the question of productive time usage among passengers on rail transit. I didn't buy the full paper but for people who want to, here's the link:


Todd Litman's picture

Travel Time Productivity


You raise a very important point: travel time unit costs (cents per minute or dollars per hour) are highly variable depending on conditions, with higher costs for unpleasant and unproductive travel, and lower costs when travel time is pleasant or productive ( ). This explains why people are often willing to choose a slower mode if it offers something they value, for example, walking or cycling, because they enjoy the experience and exercise, or using public transit because they are able to get some work done, even if they could drive.

This is discussed in my paper "Valuing Transit Service Quality Improvements" ( ), which provides a framework, based on various studies of consumer valuation of their travel time, for adjusting travel time unit costs.

This also indicates that some of the resources currently devoted to increasing travel speeds (such as widening highways to reduce congestion delays) could more rationally be spent to improve travel comfort, convenience and productivity, for example, by reducing transit vehicle crowding, creating nicer transit stops, or providing WiFi service on transit vehicles. Unfortunately, our current models fail to consider these options because they assign the same value to all travel time, without recogizing the higher cost of uncomfortable and unpreductive conditions, and therefore the savings that result from improved comfort and convenience.

Todd Alexander Litman
Victoria Transport Policy Institute
"Efficiency - Equity - Clarity"

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