Does public transport offer enough privacy?

Parallel parking - how to do it when space is tight

There are many ways to measure the immense improvement in standard of living enjoyed by western countries over the millennia (although most especially over the last two hundred years). I think an important indicator – with implications for city managers – is the greater demand for physical privacy that comes with rising incomes.

Much attention is given to how much better off we are today in terms of basics like food, clothing, energy and shelter than our ancestors were.  But there are many other measures. For example, in The rational optimist, Matt Ridley discusses the spectacular increase in the availability of time.

Part of the improvement came from dramatic reductions in the time taken – and hence the cost – of making things. Part also came from access to artificial light. He provides a fascinating example of how much the cost of manufacturing artificial light has fallen: this is how many lumen-hours (lm-hr) of artificial light could be obtained from an hour’s work at the average wage of the day:

1750BC: 24 lm-hr, sesame oil lamp

1800: 186 lm-hr, tallow lamp

1880: 4,400 lm-hr, kerosene lamp

1950: 531,000 lm-hr, incandescent light bulb

2008: 8,400,000 lm-hr, compact fluoro

If they haven’t already, LEDs will undoubtedly increase the amount of light an hour’s work buys by another order of magnitude. Modern lighting is also cleaner than the comparatively primitive methods widely used even a hundred years ago. It’s less of a fire hazard, doesn’t flicker and doesn’t create smoke within the premises (a leading cause of death in times past).

Although it isn’t discussed by Ridley, another aspect of the rise in living standards that should be of particular interest to anyone interested in cities is the increase in the demand for privacy and personal control.

With rising incomes, households who once shared a one-roomed hovel now have individual bedrooms. Twenty somethings who used to live in share houses a generation ago now live by themselves in studio or one bedroom apartments. Where once hotels and boarding houses had shared facilities, now even the most run-down motel offers a private bathroom and toilet. People who can afford it have babies or convalesce in private hospital rooms, not communal wards.

And look at transport. Around 90% of all travel in a city like Melbourne is by private car, much of it with only the driver present. Those who can afford it take taxis, fly in chartered or private jets or, if there’s no alternative to sharing, cocoon themselves in first class cabins on planes and ships.

Compared to a train, tram or bus, cars offer a lot of privacy and control: they’re available on-demand, go directly to the driver’s destination, are in most cases considerably faster, and are only shared by invitation. Car ownership usually costs more in terms of cash outlays than public transport, but people with a high standard of living are prepared to pay the price.

The increased demand for privacy and personal control might seem at odds with the growth of cities. People have been drawn to cities over the last 200 years on an unprecedented scale, so there’s no doubt they want to be closer to each other than ever. Indeed, a key reason why incomes have increased spectacularly is precisely because of the greater proximity of people.

But it’s clear they also want more privacy. Technology is one reason they’ve been able to live cheek-by-jowl and still increase their autonomy. Yet there are limits. Cars aren’t a very effective solution in dense environments. In response, cities have generally evolved by decentralising population, services and jobs at low densities, enabling residents to maintain their car-oriented lifestyle.

But cars have other downsides like pollution, carbon emissions, traffic accidents and noise. Moreover, a significant proportion of people now want to be close to key nodes, like the CBD and beaches – that requires density, the enemy of cars.

I think it’s very important that policy-makers, particularly those involved with public transport, understand and acknowledge the desire of contemporary travellers for privacy and personal control. Of course there’re many other improvements that need to be made to Melbourne’s public transport system, but this perspective suggests that, for example, safety, security and comfort are key values for existing and prospective public transport users.

We’re accustomed to think of security issues in terms of danger and crime, but I suspect there are many more low level “privacy invasions” that have a key role in turning Melburnians off public transport. The perception of danger rather than the actuality is one possibility. The prospect of annoyance, irritation or frustration from the actions of fellow passengers might also loom large in the minds of many travellers, perhaps especially those who are potential users.

Public transport can’t ever be made as private as a car. But it might be attractive to more people if greater attention were given to the ability of patrons to choose the level of “privacy” they want to enjoy while travelling on trains, trams and buses. They could only do that if there were a dramatic increase in the level of civility – of “respect” for others and the system – on the part of all travellers. How to go about achieving that objective is a huge and probably emotive topic, one best left for another time.

Looking again at Ridley’s work, he provides another way of considering the enormous historical increase in access to light. This time he estimates how long a person would have to work at the average wage of the day to earn an hour of reading light of the intensity we take for granted (an 18 watt compact fluoro).

1750BC: 50 hours

1800: 6 hours

1880: 15 minutes

1950: 8 seconds

2008: half a second

16 Comments on “Does public transport offer enough privacy?”

  1. RED says:

    I personally think the issue of civil society is at the heart of resistance to using public transport. The ‘desire’ for privacy, and the fear of other people are a direct result of the decline in civil society – or social capital, if you want to think of it in those terms. Why are we so afraid of dealing with drunks, panhandlers, noisy teenagers and the like? If more people were taught appropriate strategies for keeping their aplomb around even the most challenging members of society, perhaps they would be less risk-averse, and hence more likely to catch public transport.

    Of course, another option would be to bring back the old red rattlers and other trains with the eight-seat compartments, that would improve privacy!

  2. It was fascinating being in Japan last January where there is a strict “no talking on phones” rule on trains, on the intercity trains there were designated sections near the toilets where you could speak on the phone. The urban trains could be twice as busy and crowded as a urban Metro train, yet still be far quieter.

  3. Students at the ANU who regularly spend a year in Indonesia in that field of study (as I have done) are offered counselling upon return. The problem is they are all habituated in the way of chatting with strangers which is often a little unusual here. Indonesians are often shy, but compelled by good manners to engage. It is a more civil society and difficult to readjust after a long spell there.

    At some point privacy becomes a bogus ideal where the perceived benifits are defeated by the negatives.

    I also strongly suspect that the passion for privacy in our society is actually generated by cars more than any other cause. Taking a dim view, privacy aspiration could be seen as a selfish and indivualist approach at the expense of the group. The car fits snugly into the same definition.

    • Alan Davies says:

      I think cars are just one of many symptoms of our desire for greater privacy/control as we get richer. And I think personal security, perceived or real, is the key privacy issue on public transport, but there’s a continuum from irritation right through to safety.

    • I went to an interesting debate recently regarding whether density was a necessary condition of well functioning and well patronised public transport.

      One speakers argument essentially boiled down to the concept that the traditional Australian urban form (a fully detached house, on a block with a garden and a fence surrounding) has created a psychological barrier against the idea of sharing space with strangers. He then continued to argue that the Australian’s love of the car was an extension of the same kind of thinking. Everyone in their own little box, with plenty of empty space surrounding them until they reach where ever they’re going.

      I thought a lot of his evidence for the argument was pretty rubbish, but it was an interesting hypothesis none the less.

  4. Michael says:

    I lived happily without a car for nearly 10 years in Asia and relied solely on buses, trains, trams and ferries. I haven’t ever had a problem with privacy on public tranport, with the majority of people minding their own business, but I do have a problem with safety.

    The difference with Melbourne is the expectations of public behaviour. I don’t remember ever feeling uncomfortable or threatened on public transport overseas. The same can’t be said of here. Even small courtesies are routinely ignored and I wouldn’t recommend using it in a lot of places in Melbourne outside of peak hour. I have witnessed appalling criminal behaviour on buses where the bus driver instead of calling the police just ignored it. That was the last time I used that bus route. I’m sure it’s not like this everywhere, but the fact that it can happen is a good reason to aviod the service and if this is the widely held perception in the community then whether or not it is rational it has to be dealt with.

    I don’t remember it being like this in the seventies and eighties. Maybe I’m just getting old.

  5. Michael says:

    I should also add that anti-social behaviour is rife with cars and motorbikes as well. Our neighbourhood is frequently disturbed by cars doing burnouts, motorbikes loud enough to overpower the TV from the street – is there no effective regulation of engine noise? The prevalence of SUV’s is basically anti-social behaviour for rich people, feeling safe by externalising collision risk onto smaller vehicles. There is no ignoring it, the problems aren’t just to do with public transport, it’s our society and it’s people.

  6. You sound like the perfect dinner guest Michael. What I am stating is that the problems societal you have identified are not only nothing to do with public transport, but exactly the opposite. It is private transport namely in the form of the car and even looking at the lexographic linkage the current privacy fad in car countries must raise a question about privacy as a stopthink kind of word, in a manner not dissimilar to calling your opponent a nazi. Privacy has its value in protecting an individual from the state but an excessive allowance of the same could also bring down the state along with the “private” individuals. It is a matter of balance in that example.

    Unfortunately studies are hard to find and there is difficulty quantifying results with regards to social issues. However I do recall this poignant fact from a documentary I saw a couple of years ago concerning the Paris bike share scheme.

    The young lady whose lobbying efforts got the whole thing going emphatically stated that since the introduction of the scheme a wholly unenvisaged and unexpected result had come to light.

    Namely, Paris had become a friendly place again. Yes Paris. People on bikes at traffic lights are very much inclined to talk to each other.

  7. In a similar vein Alan, you state that density is the enemy of cars, but I attempt to draw you to the obvious though converse view, cars are the enemy of density.

  8. John Smith says:

    Security: increased concern about security is an argument in favour of single deck trains, against double deck trains. Mutual surveillance along the train is important for people’s sense of security at low use times. A particularly bad feature of Sydney’s trains is that if you wish to enter the upper or lower cabins you must commit to do so before you can see who is there already.

    Privacy: An obvious easy win for better privacy on trams and trains is to use blocks of seats facing in the same direction. I have never understood why Australian trains (except Sydney) and trams (except the old Glenelg trams) traditionally use pair facing pair. These require a lot of bumping knees with the person opposite; they waste the space between the seat backs (same direction seats can have a closer pitch because your legs are to some extent under the bottom of the person in front); and they provide fewer handholds for standing passengers.

    If it is desired to have fixed, not turnover seats, for the economy of weight and maintenance, this can still be done with same direction seats by having half the carriage face one way and half the other (or four groups, if you want to have a few more facing pairs for choice).

    In general I am a little sceptical of ‘desire for privacy’ as a reason for not using public transport, without proper supporting research. It’s a cousin of that silly journalistic catchprase ‘Australians are in love with their cars’ – an easy excuse for people who want to talk down public transport for other reasons.

    Urban dwellers, whether they use public transport or not, must still be socialised to accept the proximity of strangers in many situations – the school, the shopping mall, the cinema, the stadium, the change room of the swimming pool. We accept the proximity of strangers providing the avoidance behaviours that allow ‘functional privacy’ are understood, which they almost invariably are, as the surrounding taboos are very strong.

    I’d like to see the research that shows that the modern ability to avoid just one of these crowd situations (public transport) has significantly changed people’s socialisation in relation to tolerating the proximity of strangers.

    People will accept the proximity of strangers if the motivation is there. Desire for privacy hasn’t stopped the explosive growth of air travel, because of its compensating conveniences.

    Obviously there are questions of degree – I’m not saying privacy is unimportant. Obviously a comfortable spacious train is better than a crowded one, and desire for privacy is part of the reason why. Public transport should certainly be designed to make ‘functional privacy’ easier, which is the point of my comment above on seats in trains and trams.

    • Alan Davies says:

      In my view, understanding the desire for privacy/control and responding appropriately should improve the status and increase the use of public transport.

    • Dudley Horscroft says:

      “(same direction seats can have a closer pitch because your legs are to some extent under the bottom of the person in front);”

      This is a furphy. The book “PCC the car that fought back” has diagrams of PCC and Brilliner cars. The seat spacing on the PCC is 28.5″, on the Brilliner it is 30.5″. So for a pair the dimensions are 57″ and 61″ respectively. The GA for Melbourne’s W7 trams gives a spacing of 59.75″.

      “they waste the space between the seat backs”

      This depends on management. Melbourne seats were designed to be very light and cost little, so the space betweed the seat backs was not used. SR and BR trains, also with facing pairs or triples, had an open space between the seats below the common backs in which one could stow suitcases. Space not wasted.

      “require a lot of bumping knees with the person opposite;”

      Not so. Seat squabs are sufficiently wide that knees are well separated (21.75″ between the edges of facing pairs, 12.5″ between the front edge of one seat and the side edge of a longitudinal seat. Admittedly, one has to be careful when getting out from a window seat, all part of normal civility, but this is nowhere ner as bad as trying to get out from the window seat in a face to back arrangement – which often required the aisle passenger to get up to let you out.

      • John Smith says:

        Okay, I’ll suspend judgment on the point about seat pitch, but still maintain that face to back seats –
        – are better for functional privacy;
        – allow more points for handholds on the corner of the seat backs. This is important for systems like Melbourne’s to encourage peak crowds to move into the car and not block doorways, which extends dwell time.

  9. Russell says:

    No it doesn’t offer enough privacy. I would have stayed with train commuting if there had been a First Class carriage I could have moved to when the trains became really crowded. I would have paid double the price to be in a carriage where there were enough seats for everyone.

    In places like Japan, or even Indonesia, where people are more formal, you can be crowded but everyone maintains/retains their dignity. Australians are too uncivilised to live in greater density.

    I’m a very private person and though I swim everyday I never go into the changerooms: they’re ugly, dirty, smelly, but also there’s a weird atmosphere. But when I was in Tokyo and sometimes forced into staying in a ‘capsule’ hotel, I really enjoyed the big communal bathrooms. The Japanese have worked out how everyone can be private even when they’re naked.

  10. […] and development issues with a particular focus on Melbourne, Australia Does public transport offer enough privacy? […]

  11. Simon says:

    People like crowds, and flock to them. It’s easy to see at this time of year. Look at the work of William Whyte who showed exactly this. People are magnets for other people.

    The privacy argument against public transport is nonsense.

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