Comfort Versus Speed

Todd Litman's picture

Most people that I know want to act responsibly, but when it comes to daily travel decisions they often choose driving over more resource-efficient but less comfortable and convenient alternative modes, such as walking, cycling and public transportation. As a result, they feel guilty, and communities suffer from problems such as congestion, infrastructure costs, consumer costs, accidents, energy consumption, and pollution emissions.

There is no doubt that comfort and convenience significantly influence transportation decisions. Consumers shopping for an automobile are as likely to base their decisions on seat comfort and sound system quality as on more quantitative factors such as speed, price or fuel efficiency. Similarly, qualitative factors influence consumers when choosing a travel mode: people are much more likely to use alternatives that are comfortable and convenient. Yet, planners lack guidance for evaluating such factors, which leads to an overemphasis on strategies that improve traffic speeds and underinvestment in strategies that improve the comfort and convenience of modes that depend on public support, such as walking, cycling and public transit.

This skews planning and investment decisions in the following ways:
• Potentially cost-effective strategies are overlooked and undervalued, resulting in underinvestment in transit service quality improvements and improvements to walking and cycling conditions. This makes alternative modes less attractive relative to automobile travel.
• Automobile improvements are favored over transit improvements, contributing to a cycle of increased automobile dependency, reduced transit ridership and revenue, land use sprawl, stigmatization of transit, and reduced public support for transit improvements.
• Opportunities for modal integration are overlooked, since many transit quality improvements involve improving walking and cycling conditions, or improving connections with other modes.

My newest paper, "Valuing Transit Service Quality Improvements: Considering Comfort and Convenience In Transport Project Evaluation," addresses this issue by providing a method for adjusting travel time values to account for factors such as travel and waiting comfort, travel reliability, for use in transport modeling. For example, a quality improvement that reduces travel time unit costs (cents per minute or dollars per hour) by 20% provides benefits equivalent to an operational improvement that increases travel speeds by 20%.

This is good news because it indicates that there are many relatively inexpensive ways to improve public transit and attract discretionary riders (people who would otherwise drive), which have previously been overlooked and undervalued. By improving our ability to evaluate consumer needs and preferences it should be possible to identify cost-effective transit service improvements that benefit existing passengers and attract new riders. Most of these improvements have additional spillover benefits such as improving walking conditions, increasing public fitness and health, supporting urban redevelopment, and supporting smart growth land use development.

There is another possible way to deal with this problem. Jurisdictions could require anybody involved in transportation decision-making to spend a couple weeks each year without driving a car. This would force public officials to experience the non-automobile transportation system that they develop. The result, I predict, would be significant improvements in alternative mode comfort and convenience. This would help create a transportation system that allows responsible people to reconcile their travel behavior with their good intentions.
Todd Litman is the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.



comfort and convenience

I love your idea of making public officials give up their car for about 2 weeks a year to experience alternate modes. As a cyclist, I've always wanted to get the road repair guys out on road bikes AFTER they've finished a paving or patching job. I am sure if they were to experience their work by bicycle they'd do a better job patching or paving. Or maybe I'm just being idealistic.

EVERYONE should experience alternative modes!

As an urban bicyclist I frequently encounter awkward (and occasionally dangerous) 'situations' on the road. Many of these situations arise from the simple fact that car drivers do not appreciate how a bicyclist 'views' the road. For example, cars will often make a left-hand turn directly in front of an approaching cyclist. Clearly this is something that they would not do if a car was approaching, but for some reason many drivers conveniently ignore bicycles (we can stop fast, right?). And stops signs- no one ever seems to know what to expect from a cyclist at a stop sign. Ever wonder why so few bicyclists come to a complete stop at a stop sign? Try turning left at a busy four-way stop intersection - you'll understand.

To reduce this lack of understanding, I think that an additional requirement for getting a car driver's licence should be to have a certain amount of bicycle awareness training. In addition, some practical urban bicycle experience (ideally as part of the requirements for getting a driver's licence) would open some people's eyes as well.

But your article was about transit! You did mention the issue of travel time reliability, and in my opinion this is really crucial. One bad experience on a transit trip (say a 45 minute trip took 2 hours) is possible to ignore, but if you have another bad experience a few weeks later, and then another one.... At some point people loose 'faith' in their transit service, and then it is very difficult to 'attract' them back.

Alternative modes

You say that drivers do not see things from the perspective of cyclists and don't know what to expect from cyclists and stop signs and intersections. That's part of the problem right there. I'm a regular cyclist both to commute and for fun, and I see it from both sides. Its frustrating to be in a car and pull away from a stop sign, only to have to slam on my brakes because a cyclist blew through the stop sign. Its frustrating as a cyclist to have cars cut me off or turn in front of me.

The point is, if cyclists expect to get the respect they need on the road, they need to respect applicable laws and be responsible. Drivers have an equal responsibility to treat cyclists as they would other cars.

Respect and understanding all around

I certainly agree that irresponsible bicyclists give all of us a bad reputation. In fact, the situation is probably even worse for pedestrians! Crossing busy streets as a pedestrian should also be part of driver training.

Car drivers need to appreciate that they are not the only ones who have "a right" to use the road. In my opinion, driving is a privilege which requires a certain level of responsibility. There is very little punishment for "irresponsible" drivers, whereas irresponsible bicyclists and pedestrians frequently end up dead.

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