Comfort Versus Speed

<br /> 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. <br />

April 26, 2007, 4:28 PM PDT

By Todd Litman


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

Todd Litman is founder and executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, an independent research organization dedicated to developing innovative solutions to transport problems.

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