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Climate change in action: view from the driver's seat

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By Bridget Doran

· 3 min read

Being stuck in a queue of traffic is no fun. Even people who drive infrequently know that a slow trip on a congested road network is painful. So even the most progressive advocate for public transport might have some sympathy for the views of politicians who are sceptical of measures like bus priority. In cities where bus patronage is low, efforts to make it more attractive – with a new bus lane, for example – can feel like a punishment to people who drive cars.

We can try to convince the voting public of the environmental efficiency of investment in bus priority from the planet’s perspective. But it could be more effective to go directly to the driver’s view to tell that story. To change our cities in the face of changing climate we desperately need good stories. To start bringing the threads of a planet-saving story together, here are some transport system facts that everyone can agree on:

  1. Nobody wants traffic congestion to get worse. Congestion is inefficient, bad for people’s physical and mental health, and it makes bus travel slow too. For people who really need to drive, including for example some disabled people and emergency service vehicle drivers, congestion makes necessary trips frustratingly time-consuming.
  1. Many western cities are experiencing rapid population growth. That growth means an increasing need for people to travel, which needs to be accommodated in the short-term.
  1. Most car-centric cities have high rates of car ownership. This tautology is useful to state because building good public transport systems doesn’t happen overnight. We need to remind ourselves that people drive, not because they are intentional planet-hating polluters, but because our street networks practically beg them to drive, with mile upon mile of road lanes, plentiful parking, and miserable alternatives.
  1. In car-centric cities bus travel isn't as convenient or comfortable as car travel. More and more people want to live sustainable lifestyles but a legacy of indirect, slow bus routes means bus patronage will remain low so long as the service quality is poor.

If we think about these facts while sitting in traffic, it can help to visualise who is moving, and how growth might be accommodated. A 40-car queue might contain 50 people. If we add 50 more people to that queue they could be in 40 cars, or one bus. And if we add a bus priority lane such as a bus-only space at a signalised intersection, drivers sitting in traffic will probably feel like that bus is in the way. But they could also be stuck behind an extra 40 cars. The loss they felt from being behind a bus is suddenly framed as a gain – not because we have sold the virtues of being a bus passenger, but because bus priority is good for car drivers too.

That's what the story of smart transport strategy does: we explain to people that efficient transport is a sponge. Buses absorb trips that would otherwise add to our congested misery. When we invest in high quality public transport we soak up as many people as we can into the smallest possible amount of space. People who still want to drive can drive, and their trips will be made easier. Ultimately of course, we want public transport to be so convenient that even committed car drivers consider switching, and there are other policy levers such as road pricing to help that happen – but for now we need to be very careful about the stories we tell to get to that fairy tale ending.

In theory, the challenge of building climate-friendly cities could be met with straightforward infrastructure retrofit. But in practice, successful climate action in democracy will always be a story of success in storytelling. We need to flip the narrative, and start telling everyone what they have to gain. To tell that story well it will help to write it from the driver’s seat.

Energy Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Bridget Doran is a transportation engineer and Principal Researcher at MRCagney in New Zealand. She works on policy and planning projects exploring systemic change towards more inclusive and sustainable transport. Bridget is the Chair of Engineering New Zealand’s Transportation Group.

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