Is time on transit more productive than driving?Posted: March 15, 2011
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.
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.