Reconceiving Transport Services

Let us examine again the example of motor transport which was discussed above. From the conceptual viewpoint of the new service economy, we need to ask: what is the service provided by cars? I have already remarked that cars have come to represent a number of value-laden aspects of modern industrial society.16 They are associated, for example, with concepts of personal freedom. And they also express elements of status and personal taste. But for the moment I want to leave these more subjective matters to one side and concentrate on the primary objective function provided by car ownership. In particular, of course, cars represent one of the material requirements in the provision of a specific service: namely, transportation.

One way of expressing the delivery of services from passenger transportation is in terms of distance travelled per year. We can either count up the total passenger-kilometres travelled each year, or we can use the average distance travelled by each person in a year as an indication of the delivery of transportation services. Figure 27 illustrates the delivery of per capita transportation services (excluding air travel) in Sweden from 1950 to 1990.

Several important lessons emerge from this graph. First, the figure shows that car travel now represents a high proportion of the total delivered transportation services. In 1990, around three-quarters of total passenger-kilometres were provided by cars. Just over 20 per cent were provided from public transport (buses, trains and trams). Less than 10 per cent were covered by walking and-cycling. This contrasts sharply with the situation in 1950 when around half of all transportation services were provided by public transport. At that time, cars provided

Figure 27 Passenger transportation services in Sweden, 1950-90

Figure 27 Passenger transportation services in Sweden, 1950-90

Plate 5 Is the car sustainable?—traffic congestion in Mexico City Source: © The Environmental Picture Library/Matt Sampson

less than a third of all transportation, and less in total than was provided through walking and cycling.

The material implications of these trends emerge from the realisation that car transportation is considerably more intensive of energy and materials use (per passenger-kilometre) than public transport is. Both are more intensive than walking or cycling. This means that the trend towards increased car use has had very significant impacts on the material intensity of transportation services. But it also raises the possibility that we could reconceive transportation services in such a way as to reduce the material intensity again, by encouraging a shift from cars towards public transport. Many countries are now beginning to do just this—particularly in the towns and cities—where fuel efficiencies are lower, and traffic congestion from cars is an increasing problem (Plate 5). In Sweden, for example, there are a number of specific programmes and incentive schemes designed to encourage public transport over cars.

For long-distance journeys one of the advantages which has been offered by the car is flexibility. Cars allow (in principle) for individual choice over the route travelled, the time taken for the journey, stopover points, and so on. In fact, many of these advantages are being eroded by increasing congestion. But the successful implementation of an alternative service must at least attempt to provide a similar flexibility. In practice, however, the rise of road transport has eroded flexibility in the rail networks. Smaller branch lines have been subject to closure and passengers are sometimes penalised for delaying or interrupting journeys. A comprehensive, flexible and yet materially efficient transport system therefore requires both technological and commercial inspiration. Flexible ticketing is as important as infrastructure investments.

Again, the emergence of a new service network relies on new commercial initiatives. And the idea of leasing transport services rather than selling cars (and fuel) offers some exciting possibilities—some of them novel, and some which have been around for years. The extension of the idea of 'rover' tickets—once a common feature of both the railways and the buses—would be one such possibility. Another would be the development of travel service companies which combine longdistance public transportation with short-distance taxi services or car rental.17 Again, it is clear that these developments imply different commercial relationships from those which exist at the moment. But they also offer considerable potential to reduce the material intensity of transportation services.

What appears once more from these considerations is that the provision of transportation services is not the same thing as the provision of material commodities (cars and fuel, for instance). Conceiving and designing a materially efficient transport service implies thinking and acting strategically in a changing commercial context. In particular, it should be obvious that investment in improved car designs and durability should not overlook—or impede—the development of more efficient ways of providing transportation services.

Before we leave this case study, there is another aspect which is worth commenting on. It is clear from Figure 27 that the demand for transportation services has increased dramatically, even on a per capita basis, since 1950. This demand increase has important technical repercussions for the kind of transport system we develop. For example, it is clear that walking and cycling could not provide the same proportion of the total demand in 1990 as they provided in 1950. It simply would not be possible for people to travel the relevant distances on foot or on bike without spending their whole lives doing it. In other words, automotive technology is delivering a level of service which is over and above what would have been possible without it. It is clear that we are demanding much more from transportation services now than we did forty years ago.

This raises the question of whether we should accept these demand increases as the starting point for providing services or whether it is legitimate to include demand-side management within our remit in reconceiving the transport system. Do increases in passenger kilometres represent real increases in our standard of living? Or are they necessary only to offset new patterns of working, shopping and living? Some at least of the increased demand falls into the latter category. For instance, people generally travel further to get to work than they used to do. It seems fair to assume that the increased commuting distances represent a decrease in welfare rather than an increase.

What is being suggested here is that transportation services are not, in fact, an end in themselves. Rather there are some underlying services— such as 'getting to work' or 'going on holiday' or 'buying the groceries'—which transportation provides for us. Once again, we are forced to recognise how complex the reconception of services is. In the case of transportation services, it is certainly not a straightforward matter of providing vehicles and fuels. It is not even a question of delivering passenger-kilometres, although that is an improvement over selling cars. Instead it requires an understanding of the demands placed on the transport networks and the design of appropriate frameworks to deliver the relevant services. Supplying these underlying services is not just a task for road-builders or car manufacturers. It concerns a wide range of actors and decision-makers. In particular, of course, it involves the entire system of planning under which new shopping developments, work complexes and residential estates are conceived.

These considerations reveal that this revision of the concept of transportation services is a challenging task, technically, commercially and institutionally. But it offers us the possibility of designing systems which deliver the same level of service with considerably lower environmental impacts than existing systems.

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