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Public transport

Dec 21, 2011

Does public transport offer enough privacy?

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)

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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

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