We're Fooling Ourselves if we Think that Bus Services Can Attract Large Numbers of People Out of their Cars, says Steve Melia

“It’s mainly about buses from now on” was how a DfT official explained their strategy for modal shift to me a few years ago, when they still claimed to have a strategy. For new developments he could have added ‘walkable neighbourhoods’ and zig-zaging cycle routes. But two key issues are off-limits: car ownership and rail expansion. According to the DfT’s Menu of Options for Growth Points and Eco-towns access to rail should be provided by buses. Light rail gets a brief disapproving mention. Expansion of heavy rail is not even on the agenda.

In the absence of any serious investment in anything else, consultants working on new developments across the country are producing fantasy modal share projections for buses: 48% of journeys from the new urban extension of Sherford to Plymouth City Centre, or 55% of all journeys from Pennbury Eco-town, for example. Pennbury is at least addressing the question of car ownership. In Sherford, like most new developments, these dramatic modal shifts are expected to occur in residential areas with free and uncontrolled parking. Are these strategies likely to work?

The 2001 Census data may give us a few clues. At the ward level, there is a strong correlation (72%) between car ownership and car commuting – no great surprise there. But does high car ownership necessarily lead to high car use? For urban extensions and new settlements built in recent years the answer appears to be: yes. To take five very different examples, in Barton Hills (Luton), Bradley Stoke (Bristol), Great Notley (Essex), Poundbury (Dorchester) and Cambourne (Cambridgeshire) over 90% of households have at least one car, with cars used for between 71% and 81% of journeys (the Poundbury and Cambourne data comes from more recent studies). Some of these are viewed as planning disasters, some are cited as examples of best practice, but they all display a strikingly similar pattern of car ownership and use. The ‘walkable neighbourhood’ idea doesn’t appear to work in new developments where the option of jumping in a car is available to nearly all adults.

Elsewhere, there are some exceptions – wards with car ownership over 90% and less than 50% commuting by car. They are all either in the Southeastern commuter belt, where rail is the dominant mode, or rural (or a handful of small town or university) areas where walking to work is common. In all of these wards bus use is low. Conversely, in those wards where bus use is highest – all in inner cities – car ownership is always low. This reinforces the findings of several studies that increased or improved bus services are unlikely to substitute for car journeys, where a car is available; they may substitute for walking or cycling.

So what ground are there for believing that better bus services can radically change the transport habits of neighbourhoods where everyone is free to own, park and drive as many cars as they like? The answer, for many lies in the vague and flexible concept of Bus Rapid Transit. In Britain, this often seems to mean segregating the easy bits, leaving the buses to fend for themselves when the going gets tough in urban centres. Research conducted in Tyne and Wear suggests that the usual British stop-start bus lanes may actually worsen both journey times and variability compared to the ‘do-nothing’ alternative.

Segregated busways can bring some improvements. The Runcorn New Town Busway achieves a 10% share of commuting, compared to 7% across Halton, but car use is only fractionally lower than other parts of Borough. Kent Fastrack has likewise been successful in attracting passengers, but only 19% of those journeys would otherwise have been made by car.

Rail and light rail are generally better at attracting car drivers. But in themselves they do not necessarily lead to much lower car use, either. So why do I believe they may be essential?

Like it or not, the only thing which is guaranteed to reduce car use, is lower car ownership. There are several ways of achieving this, of which residential parking limitations are probably the most effective, providing parking is controlled. Whatever method is used, if some people are to be attracted to an area to live without a car, this raises two more questions: what sort of transport connections will they require, and what do they get in return?

European carfree areas provide the most powerful answer to the second question. Their unique selling point is the better quality of life provided by a traffic-free environment, where you can allow your 7 year old child to play, cycle or skate unsupervised around urban streets. Carfree development should not be confused with the bastardised British concept of ‘car free housing’ meaning housing with no parking on streets open to traffic. Most carfree developments do have a small amount of peripheral parking, although car ownership and use is always very low.

But of course you can only build carfree developments, or any other form of reduced car development, in places where people are willing to live without owning a car. My research in this country has focussed on those people who live without a car by choice. 97% of these ‘carfree choosers’ use rail to some extent. Most of them live in inner cities, but many would like to live closer to the countryside if possible. Many of them mention closeness to a station as an important factor in choosing where to live. Buses are also important, but for different reasons – the average rail journey in 2006 was 24.4 miles, compared to 4.5 miles for local buses.

In the inner districts of larger cities, carfree choosers may use bus connections to rail stations, as long as the connections are good and the distance is not too great. Elsewhere, in new developments without a good rail service in walking distance, the vast majority of adults of working age will want to own a car. And if they can afford it and park it, no bus service, no car clubs, no walkable neighbourhoods nor any of the other transport planning measures are likely to make much difference to the overall pattern of car dependency.

A few farsighted developers have now begun to understand this. Carfree UK has been working with some of them on plans for new developments with carfree neighbourhoods supported by rail. But when the housing recovery begins the pool of development locations with potential for rail will soon run dry unless we start expanding the network and building new lines. Before billions are spent on a high speed rail network, should we not consider some of these smaller scale opportunities?