Is time on transit more productive than driving?

MTR Hong Kong - SRO (photo by M Wong)

I regularly hear the argument that time spent travelling on public transport is more enjoyable and more productive than time spent in the driver’s seat of a car. The public transport passenger can read, study, write, listen to music, play games, talk to others and even think without distraction. The driver, on the other hand, must devote most of his or her attention to the road or else get fined (or worse).

I think this line of argument is ultimately pointless. Both modes have their upsides and downsides in terms of how fruitfully in-vehicle travel time can be spent. Travellers make their choice on criteria that are far more critical than this one. Still, it’s an argument that’s often made so it’s worth looking briefly at the issues.

You can listen to music, podcasts and radio just as well while driving as you can on transit, so let’s scotch that one from the get-go. In fact some people prefer listening over speakers because ear phones can cause fatigue. And far too few smartphones and mp3 players come with AM radio, so if listening to 621 or 774 on the train is your thing then your options are limited. I’d score this one even.

What you can’t do in a car however is use a notebook computer, send text messages, play games or read reports and books, at least not if you’re driving.  Actually notebooks aren’t widely used on public transport in my experience, even on the sharp end of planes, but reading, texting and playing games are certainly a common way to while away the time. It’s neither legal nor practical to do those activities in any meaningful way if you’re driving.

But they’re much harder to do on public transport if you don’t have a seat. On Melbourne’s public transport system that’s by no means guaranteed in rush hour. In places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan where public transport is the dominant mode, you don’t necessarily even get a choice (see picture – the priority there is to move lots of people quickly).

But there’s one area where the car has an offsetting advantage – (hands free) phone calls. Drivers can make personal and business calls without sacrificing privacy and without imposing on others. That means they can make more important, nuanced and meaningful calls than they would on a train or a bus. They can communicate more effectively without feeling self-conscious because strangers are listening in. Apart from the odd loudmouth, phone calls on public transport are like text messages – suitable mainly for communicating simple or straightforward information. Read the rest of this entry »