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.

Yamanote line, Japan

Notwithstanding the respective ‘advantages’ of the modes, I think it’s a sterile debate because travellers adapt to the situation according to their preferences. When I’m on the train I read or send the occasional text message; when I’m driving I might listen to ABC current affairs radio or make and receive phone calls. I find both ways of managing my time equally valuable. But much of the time I choose to ‘think’ and I find that’s as easy to do on one mode as the other. In fact from my observation, that’s how most people spend most of their time on the trains, especially if they’re standing. It probably is more dangerous to ‘think’ while you’re driving but then it’s not really something you can consciously stop, so I drive at a relaxed speed.

What really matters is the duration of the trip. Irrespective of the relative merits of how in-vehicle time is used on the two modes, time at the origin or destination is time that can usually be spent more productively. I take the train to the CBD because it’s quicker, but I drive most everywhere else because those trips are quicker by car. Both choices minimise my in-vehicle time. Maybe that’s what the Hong Kong MTR would argue in defense of its SRO approach – you’ll have to stand but we’ll make it quick.

In my view the “time is more productive on public transport” contention is, like the obesity argument, a blind alley. There are already very good arguments for the superiority of public transport over cars in appropriate situations without having to resort to dubious contentions like this one.


13 Comments on “Is time on transit more productive than driving?”

  1. brisurban says:

    Oh yes, this is like the “people enjoy congestion in the car because they can do their makeup” style arguments.

    I don’t think there is much difference. Time in transit is mostly unproductive, many train people go and read books. Who wants to work before actually getting to work? Not me!

  2. Michael says:

    In this case I have to respectfully and totally disagree. I would equate one hour of train time to be less of a pain than 30mins on a bus and 15mins of driving in peak hour. The reality is that driving has been sold to the community under false pretences. Just watch an advertisement for a car to see how far from reality the world cars promise is from the ugly boring world they have delivered. The world I in habit on my ride to work contains parks, two creeks and lots of interesting gardens. The same distance covered by a car journey to the same place is basically a sewer that even a 100k car wouldn’t sanitise – but that is just my opinion. I guess the guy in the ridiculous looking Ferrari having a midlife crisis must be enjoying creeping along in stop start traffic in his racing car.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I expect the guy in the Ferrari gets a lot more utility out of his commute than most of us because for him it’s theatre – a way to show off his “success”! I too would prefer to commute by bicycle but it’s a very personal thing – the other 98% of commuters prefer to travel in other ways.

  3. KT says:

    Interesting post. I live in st kilda and choose to ride the tram in and out of the Melb cbd. It takes a little longer than the train but if I walk back a few stops can often get a seat before it gets chockers nearer to where I live. The train, on the other hand, is always chockers from Balaclava, stressful walking up ramp with so many others and wondering if I’m even going to get on the next service. Driving in would probably take longest, and be utter madness when weighing up all the costs.

  4. Genevieve says:

    Seriously?? You are advocating that it is okay for people to make phone calls while driving when study after study has shown that yaking on a phone call while driving is every bit as dangerous as drinking and driving?? Drunk drivers and drivers on their cell phones are equally impaired! I can probably manage to stand on my head while driving, but I probably won’t be trying that either. I am floored that you included this as a benefit to driving.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think “advocating” is a bit of a charged term – I’d say I noted or observed that the ability to make complex phone calls is an advantage of driving. I similarly noted that the ability to read or play games is an advantage of public transport, but I’m not “advocating” that passengers do either.

      I’d be interested in references to all these studies as the issue is germane to this blog. I know there was a recent one on the risks of hands-free telephone use in cars but I’ve not heard of others. From reports, my understanding is this latest study argued the risks were on a par with 0.05 alcohol (I wouldn’t use a pejorative label like “drunk” for a 0.05 reading, but it’s certainly impaired). But didn’t the study also conclude that chatting to passengers was just as risky? If so, what is the appropriate policy response?

      • Genevieve says:

        Actually the risk is on par with an .08 percent BAC which is the legal limit in most states and will get you a DUI(http://www.distraction.gov/stats-and-facts/). Certainly cell phones are not the only distraction, but they are a major one and I question why would you even consider using it as a benefit. It is not a benefit if it puts you and other drivers in danger. It should be scrapped from your list.

        • Alan Davies says:

          I accept that distracted driving increases the risk of accidents but let’s put the comparison with DUI in perspective. According to the same study you refer to, alcohol is involved in 41% of all fatal accidents in the US, but in more than four fifths of those accidents the deceased’s BAC is higher than 0.08% – in fact the average is a whopping 0.16%. So while 0.08% sounds dramatic, the consequences of in-car phone use are not as severe as this loaded comparison implies.

          The big issue here is what level of risk we’re prepared to accept both as individuals and as a society for the advantages of driving a car. This question could be asked of many of our daily activities e.g. people die each year in their homes from events like electrocution and falling down stairs despite the best efforts of regulators, but as a society we calculate that the benefits outweigh the risks.

          I suspect the vast bulk of travellers would calculate that the added risk of talking to passengers while driving is worth it. Since the risk is apparently no higher for in-car phones, it’s hard to argue forcefully that phones should be banned (even assuming enforcement is feasible). There is however a case for public education about the risks of distracted driving.

  5. Pat Sunter says:

    Some good points here as usual, I would make a couple of points in terms of this detailed “micro” mode comparison:

    * As you’ve said, it’s very context-dependent: a drive home through scenic countryside is very different to a stressful inner-city commute:- similarly a ride on a 0.5 full train is very different to a sardine-tin peak hour trip.

    * I know it’s not the core ‘productivity’ topic but a big factor here I think is safety … when driving a car you are responsible for a deadly machine taking into account your life and others. Especially with an intellectually demanding/absorbing job (e.g. computer programming), I found that with a 1 hour+ drive home through busy city streets afterwards it was difficult to switch from that absorption to instead maintain what I might call the “concentrated controlled aggression” required for peak-hour city non-freeway driving for the whole time.

    Obviously public-transport is not 100% safe either (and I’d be interested to see the stats of risks of the 2), but in that case you’re passing responsibility to a paid professional driver and don’t have to deal with that added stress personally.

    I think an interesting public-policy point to draw from all this is – should a ‘productivity vs fullness curve’ of public transport be factored in to planning and costing the system? E.g. yes, there are added costs (both in dollars, and carbon) in running the system to be below some arbitrary ‘100% capacity’ (or in current Melb reality, consistently over-capacity in peak hour CBD trains), but is it worth this, especially if at some point (say 80%) a P.T. trip rapidly changes from a chance for a productive 1/2 hour of reading, to a stress-inducing sardine tin!

    Similarly I have occasionally wondered about the wisdom or otherwise of a limited slightly-better “1st class” service on country trains. While generally egalitarian and concerned about this sort of thing, I could see the appeal of paying say $15-20 instead of $10 for the trip to Ballarat from Melbourne, on a day when you wanted to be sure to have a chance to work on a laptop for an hour. Similar to the idea of ‘super economy’ on plane trips.

  6. Gabriel says:

    “But much of the time I choose to ‘think’ and I find that’s as easy to do on one mode as the other.” That’s what I normally do whilst driving and/or commuting. Although I can switch off a radio, thoughts are something that cannot be controlled. Thoughts, in my case, can be differing in nature – current events, things to attend to, decisions, music playing in the head … but I don’t let them distract me from the task at hand whilst driving, though I wouldn’t know what was at a particular crossing 5 mins later if you asked me.

    “What really matters is the duration of the trip.” If I need to go to the CBD, I usually commute; but as I work in the suburbs, I prefer to use the car, as using public transport takes far too long (3 times the amount of time by bus or train). The problem with trains and trams is that all routes radiate from the CBD. Now, if there was a circular route (like the Circle Line in London), may be I’d jump on the train …

  7. Claire says:

    Some interesting points, Alan. I’d never really doubted the ‘you get time to read on the bus’ argument before. I suppose I can’t really compare it personally as I’ve never commuted by car; only by public transport, bike or foot.

    However on a slightly different comparison, I think the ‘time to think/perform tasks’ argument is a good one towards the value of single public transport trips, compared to multiple connecting trips, even if the time is shorter. That is, I would prefer to take one tram for 45 minutes to my destination, than 2 trams at 15 minutes each, and not all of the inconvenience is in the transfer. I’d prefer to have one block of time for uninterrupted thinking/reading/listening. A flippant point perhaps, but one that I don’t think transport models or online tripfinders like Metlink/131-500 take any account of. Quite often Metlink will offer me a 3-leg trip when I know I could walk a bit longer at one end to get myself a nice chunk of ‘looking out the window’ time.

  8. […] there are reasons why the attractiveness of technology shouldn’t be exaggerated (again, this is a topic I’ve discussed before in more […]

  9. Tim Boroughs says:

    more productive? shit can’t even a lousy commute be some down time from the corporate tyranny of our lives?


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