The Public Transport Revolution – Why does it never Arrive?


Since the oil spike in the early seventies, enthusiasts for public transport have predicted that high prices for petrol would trigger a public transport revolution as people finally broke their “addiction” to the motor car and changed their travel mode to buses and trains.

Since then, price bubbles have increased public transport use, and lowered car miles traveled. But these changes have proved to be short-lived. More drive more.

Yet standard theory says that people respond to prices. Surely people should respond to increased petrol prices by changing their mode of travel.  But why hasn’t it happened in the past? More importantly, will it magically happen in the future?

The answer is that most drivers do respond to increased oil prices but they have many choices as to how to respond..  You may switch to public transport provided it takes you where you want to go at a reasonable price. The problem is that part of the “reasonable price” includes the price of the increased time it takes to get to the final destination. Also, surveys reveal that when people climb into their car at the end of the day they feel they have actually arrived at “home.” Bus and train travel significantly defers their arrival in their own private space.

So, given time, people change their behaviour in many ways, so as to maintain the comfort, convenience, and overall efficiency of the car. For example:

  1. They may decide to buy a smaller or more fuel-efficient car.
  2. They may relocate either their home or their job to reduce travel costs and times – provided the land market is flexible.
  3. If the local land-market is inflexible they may move to another town, or another country.
  4. They may modify all their travel behaviour by better trip planning, commuter car-pooling (with prioritized parking) and general ride and task sharing.
  5. They may choose to telecommute, car-pool, park-share, and ride-share.

Fuel costs are only a small component of total motoring costs. Cars today are lasting longer, are more reliable, are cheaper to run, and are kept in use longer. When oil was cheaper total costs of motoring were higher. That’s one reason why we are driving more.

Sudden spikes in petrol prices do affect the transportation modal split, but these spikes carry less significance than media reports would suggest, and tend to be of much shorter duration than the advocates of transportation revolution predict. People know how they want to live and they value their personal mobility.

This is not a trivial issue because councils – and the Auckland Council for example – are demanding that Government funds massive investments in public transport because of the current oil spike, the upward blip in public transport use, and of course “Peak Oil.”

The Peak Oil pessimists seem to believe no alternative to the petrol driven car exists. They also seem to ignore the increasing evidence of vast oil and gas reserves being discovered from everywhere the eastern Mediterranean to the shores off Brazil and the American Great Plains.

A host of emerging technologies will more than compensate for any increase in the price of oil-based fuels – even for vehicles that continue to run on fossil fuels. Think of the hybrid car topping up the batteries from solar panels in the roof. Robot cars and electronically convoyed trucks hugely increase lane capacity. There are so many it would need another column to list them. The pessimists complain that it will take far too long to ring such changes in the vehicle fleet. In the next breath they talk about reshaping the urban-form, mainly by the densification of our major cities. Short of another Luftwaffe arriving on the scene, such urban renewal is hardly likely to happen overnight. Technology churns faster than cities. Try buying a Gestetner, a Telex machine, a slide rule, or a film for your camera.

Urban economist, Anthony Downs, writing in “Still Stuck in Traffic?” reminds us:

"....trying to decrease traffic congestion by raising residential densities is like trying to improve the position of a painting hung too high on the living room wall by jacking up the ceiling instead of moving the painting.”

Yet the Auckland Council, like their counterparts throughout the affluent world, seems determined to raise the ceilings – with no regard for costs.

One of the arguments used against building more roads – and especially against more motorways – is that as soon as they are built they become congested again because of “induced demand.” Such “induced demand” is surely the natural expression of suppressed demand. It seems unlikely that motorists will mindlessly drive between different destinations for no other reason than they can.

However, let us accept for a moment that “induced demand” is real, and suggests that improving the road network is a fruitless exercise. Advocates of expensive rail networks claim they will reduce congestion on the roads and improve the lot of private vehicle users as a consequence.

But surely, if the construction of an expensive rail network does reduce congestion on the roads then induced demand will rapidly restore the status quo. Maybe the theory is sound after all. It would explain why no retrofitted rail networks have anywhere resulted in reduced congestion.

This is the time to invest in an enhanced roading network while making incremental investments in flexible public transport. Roads can be shared by buses, trucks, vans, cars, taxis, shuttle-buses, motor-cycles and cyclists – unless compulsive regulators say they are for buses only. Railway lines can be used only by trains and if we build them in the wrong place they soon run empty. The Romans built roads and we still use them.

In a techno-novel published in 1992, Michael Crichton pauses in his narrative to explain what an email is. That’s not long ago.

The one certainty is that the internet/computer world will have the same impact on transport as it has already had on communications. Transport deals with bits while communication deals with bytes.

The end result will be a similar blurring of the line between public and private transport that has already happened between public and private communication. The outcomes are beyond our imagination.

We should get used to it, and realise that making cities more expensive and harder to get around in does not make them more liveable.

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies, New Zealand.

Photo by Mark Derricutt

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Since the the people have

Since the the people have changed their travel mode to buses and trains, the facilities of public transport should be improved to facilitate people at low cost. luton Meet And Greet also provide professional services at low prices for travelers. This is just because of technological advancement.

No doubt there is an eye

No doubt there is an eye catching and very fast growth of technology in automobile sector. If we analyze the revolution of this from gas to self-driving through fuel, electric and hybrid, we can easily know this. Self-driving car concept is the latest technology appreciable by customers. Most of us like to have a car with well feature and latest technology for a comfortable journey. See the influence of technology on transportation by read this. This blog is very insightful.We can easily find out the growth in our transportation.


Sorry, but this would never work in the US. Not in a million-billion years. Singapore isn't anything like the US. I wish the elites would stop looking at European and Asian models for the US. They just don't work here. altandörrar

Motor transport

Thanks for shearing this type of motor car transport revolution.


It only makes sense that people would eventually change their lifestyle and living habits to align with the economic changes taking place. However it can seem to take time, as in this example, and some of the reasons for this which you noted I had not thought of before now. We are in dire need of better transport and energy solutions without a doubt, but it just goes to show that there's more to the issue than first meets the eye. A good analysis and an interesting read all the way through. I will be looking out for more of your posts and comments to see what else you have to say that will get my thoughts going. I'll forward the link for this post to my friends who write for this ultrasound technician salary site, because it's something I think they'll be interested in reading also.

At some point we will

At some point we will probably see a big wave of auto donations as people change from petrol fueled cars to electric cars. In the future people will either have an electric car or choose public transport. There is no other way around.


People respond to prices but companies like BP will do anything so that we wont change our "oil" habits. I enjoyed reading it. I will search for more information about this topic...I admire time and effort you put in your blog, I will forward the link to my friends at container transportation cis, because it is obviously one great place where I can find lot of useful info.


Another piece of unfounded opinion from NZ's favourite guilt-afflicted Planning guru....hehe

The reality:
Auckland's PT patronage continues to climb:

The NZ government continues to want to put massive amounts of borrowed cash into roads, when vehicle use is static or falling:

So... what constitutes good infrastructure investment?

Tim Robinson
Architect & Urban Designer, Auckland, NZ

Transit needs density we no longer have

Transit is slow to catch on because most people live in communities designed to preclude its use. You can't run street cars -- or even a viable bus system -- into the suburbs with half-acre plots because the density isn't there. This isn't rocket science. It's barely transit science. It's just common sense.

On the other hand, I look at those neighborhoods and I see future crack dens and meth labs, because gas prices will eventually hit and stay in a painful range, and people -- maybe not of this generation -- will start to see the folly of living where they can't walk to anything. I love driving too, but it makes NO sense that I have to rely on my car for everything. Why not choice?

Recipe for an American renaissance: Eat in diners. Ride trains. Shop on Main Street. Put a porch on your house. Live in a walkable community.

jim karlock

You miss the fact that there is along term cap on the price of gasoline set by the refining cost of converting natural gas and coal into gasoline.

Last December 24th, the New York Times reported that diesel made from natural gas is much cheaper than from crude oil.