Modern transport systems do not save time

Modern transportation systems, the writer says, do not save people time, but rather contribute to the modern condition of “not having enough time”. They also consume space, emphasise the gap between the rich and the poor, and contribute to the disintegration of communities.

By John Whitelegg

TIME is money, we are told, and increasingly mobility is a way of saving time. The economic justification for the construction of new motorways depends upon the monetary value attached to millions of little time-savings made by millions of motorists.

And yet, the more roads, infrastructure and time-saving gadgetry we construct, the less time people seem to have. Nowadays, the observation that ‘no one has any time for each other any more’ is a commonplace, particularly among older people; yet there are few attempts to explain why this should be so.

How can we explain the paradox that the more people try to save time, the less they seem to have? In other words, what do people do with the time they save?

More Speed, Less Access
Looking carefully at people’s use of space and time, Torgen Hagerstrand suggests that the ability to make contact with places and other people is the central organising feature of human activity and that it is ease of access to other people and facilities that determines the success of a transportation system, rather than the means or the speed of transport.

It is relatively easy to increase the speed at which people move around, much harder to introduce changes that enable us to spend less time gaining access to the facilities that we need.

Today, facilities are sited further apart and people have to travel further to reach them than they did 70 years ago. In their home territories, they must travel to supermarkets or leisure facilities and often must cover some distance while looking for somewhere to park.

In their work, they must be prepared to commute further afield to find jobs. In their leisure time, people in Britain contemplate day trips to Brussels, Paris or Stockholm, when previously they would have thought the idea ridiculous.

C Marchetti has shown that the amount of time each person devotes to travel is roughly the same, regardless of how fast or how far they travel. “When people gain speed they use it to travel further and not to make more trips. In other words, most individuals treat their territory the same way whatever size it is.”

Those who use technology to travel at greater speeds still have to make the same amount of contacts — still work, eat, sleep and play in the same proportions as always. They simply do these things further apart.

Do they do so by choice or through obligation? A circular logic operates here. While the distances between hospitals, schools, shopping centres and the like have risen, nothing can be done to increase the number of hours in a day.

Speed must therefore be increased, and investments are made in quicker forms of transport — families buy faster cars, governments build faster roads and railways. But the time-savings promised by new motorways and high-speed trains appear to release time for more travel and thus only spur the consumption of distance.

Social Speeds
The suggestion that people spend about the same amount of time travelling, whatever their mode of transport, does not, however, explain the fact that many people feel that they have less time than they had before, despite faster means of transport.

There is another hidden time factor in the equation. Motor cars and other high-speed vehicles do not save as much time as they appear to, as Ivan Illich pointed out in 1974: “The typical American devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car.

He sits in it while it goes and when it stands idling. He parks and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets.”

Elaborating on Illich’s observations, D Seifried has coined the term “social speed” to signify the average speed of a vehicle, once a number of these hidden factors have been taken into account.

According to Seifried, the social speed of a typical bicycle is 14 kilometres per hour (kph), only slightly slower than that of a small car. If other external costs (air and noise pollution, accident costs, road construction costs and so on) are taken into account as well, then the small car is 1 kph slower than the bicycle. Thus the owner of a small car who spends 30 minutes per day driving 20 kilometres may feel that he/she is travelling faster than a cyclist who spends the same time covering 7 1/2 kilometres.

But when the social speed is taken into account, it emerges that the car owner is likely to be spending 70 minutes per day while the cyclist is spending only 32!

Space Pollution
Whereas speed consumes distance, a mode of transport occupies space — and the faster the mode of transport, the more space it requires. According to a 1985 Swiss study, a car travelling at 40 kph requires over three times as much space as a car travelling at 10 kph.

Furthermore, the “bodywork” often associated with high-speed vehicles demands space even when the vehicle is travelling slowly; a single person in a car travelling at 10 kph requires six times as much space as a person riding on a bicycle at the same speed.

Space therefore has to be consumed in large quantities to provide the infrastructure for high-speed travel, as can be witnessed in the land requirements for new motorways, high-speed rail routes and airports.

Roads designed to carry traffic at speeds over 120 kph take up more land than roads designed for lower speeds, and the same is true for high-speed rail — fast cars and trains cannot take tight bends. Urban motorway and “relief” road construction is the ultimate expression of space sacrificed for speed.

Time Thieves
As higher speeds lead to greater distances between facilities, people overcome this distance by gaining access to modes of transport with higher speeds. The result of both has been an accentuation of social differences.

While those with access to high-performance cars and intercontinental air flights have seen their radius of activity expand immeasurably over the last few decades, that of many unemployed residents in London or elderly people in Alabama, for instance, may be no greater than of urban residents 100 years ago.

The poor and unemployed, whose time is valued very low, are expected to find the time to devote to travel; the rich have the money to buy travel and are more likely to do so because their time is considered more valuable.

The more emphasis put on time-savings, the more the whole transport system becomes skewed to serve a wealthy elite. The Trans-European Networks, for example, will cater mainly for the needs of a Euro-elite of business executives, conference-goers, commuters, middle-class holiday-makers and just-in-time deliveries.

They will not make access to daily facilities any more convenient for people in their neighbourhoods.

Transport policies and policies which influence location and accessibility of basic facilities steal time from different groups in society and reallocate it to (usually) richer groups.

The relocation of shops, hospitals and schools at a greater distance from the community that needs them imposes serious time penalties on other users. Those without cars (still about 35% of the UK population) and those without access to them during the day must spend more time searching for other facilities, waiting for buses, waiting for friends to give them lifts, or walking. Women, children, the elderly and the infirm are particularly affected.

Maintaining Community
Jane Jacobs’ account of city life in the US some 30 years ago shows how important ordinary but diverse contact is to people’s well-being. Maintaining a sense of community needs time and energy devoted to neighbours and local groups. Such local contacts depend on time available and thus on priorities.

The decision to travel longer distances and save time at higher speeds means that little time is available for interaction with neighbours and so there is little chance of a genuine community developing or maintaining itself.

Motorists not only restrict their own lives in this respect, but also those of others. Detailed studies on the effect of traffic volumes upon different street communities in San Francisco showed, not surprisingly, that streets with heavy traffic have relatively little social interaction; residents of streets with light traffic had three times as many local friends and twice as many acquaintances as did residents of busy streets.

Ironically, then, modern transport systems don’t save people any time at all, but rather contribute to the modern condition of “not having enough time”, the sense of time being squeezed. And in striving for these fictitious time-savings, such transport systems consume huge quantities of space, accentuate the gap between those who can afford such travel and those who can’t, and contribute to the disintegration of communities. — Third World Network Features