Many ways to promote public transport

2020-01-31 Hanna Mela and Johanna Mäkinen

Finland is committed to halving its transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from the 2005 levels by 2030. Public transport plays an important role in achieving this target, since in urban environments, the greenhouse gas emissions from public transport are 60–90 per cent lower per person and per kilometre compared to a normal passenger car, depending on the vehicle used.

The other benefits of public transport over automobiles are also well known: more efficient use of urban spaces, safer traffic, smaller amounts of harmful emissions into the air we breathe and lower levels of traffic noise. Compared to travel by car, public transport usually involves more muscular exercise at both ends of travel, which carries beneficial health impacts for the user. How could cities and city residents take greater advantage of these benefits?

Public transport must be quick and effortless.

Punctuality, reliability and speed are the most important competitive factors of public transport. Speeding up public transport is essential for its competitive advantage, since speed increases punctuality and reliability. The savings gained from shorter travel times can be transferred to lower ticket prices or more frequent service. For public transport to be competitive, it must offer travel times no longer than twice those of passenger cars.

Public transport can be sped up by introducing trunk lines, lanes and routes reserved for public transport and favourable traffic light schemes, as well as by permitting entry through all doors and by reducing the number of stops. More frequent departures also shorten travel time.

The most effective way to promote public transport is to both improve its service level and reduce the attractiveness of passenger cars when an alternative is available.

Public transport must be easily accessible.

For public transport to work smoothly, customers must have easy access to it by foot, bicycle or car. High-quality pedestrian and bicycle connections as well as good park-and-ride options are essential elements of sustainable travel chains. Park-and-ride must be effortless and safe for cars and bicycles. In sparsely populated areas, it is better to drive to a trunk-line stop than all the way into the city centre to reduce congestion in the centre and free up valuable urban space from parking to other purposes. Park-and-ride is more effective if city-centre parking policies are also tightened.

New traffic services that make use of smart route optimisation round off traditional public transport services. For example in Raisio, tickets for the Fölix service cover both buses and shared taxis, while the Kyläkyyti service in Porvoo combines the rides of different customers on weekday evenings. At best, new services offer a viable alternative to passenger cars. Especially in sparsely populated areas, they are a cost-effective way to offer public transport services.

Discounted fees attract more users to public transportation.

Habit contributes to the prevalence of driving. To break the habit, motorists can be offered a free public transport trial period. The results are encouraging: for example in Helsinki and Gothenburg, 30–40 per cent of those opting for a free trial continued as paying customers after the trial period, and the increase in ticket revenue exceeded the costs for the trial.

The towns of Pieksämäki and Mikkeli, in turn, have offered free public transport to pupils in comprehensive school. Contrary to expectations, Pieksämäki, which has longer experience in this, has actually seen an increase in ticket revenue. Young people used to travelling by bus have continued using public transportation after comprehensive school. In addition, their parents have also begun travelling by bus more frequently. For price reductions to have any effect on emissions reductions, the service level must meet people’s travel needs. Poor service is not attractive, even if offered for free.

The big role of travel to work

Around two thirds of all travel between home and work takes place alone in a passenger car. Traffic between the home and the workplace has a major impact not only on reducing emissions but also on reducing traffic jams. Employers have many options for encouraging employees to use public transport instead of their cars. Employer-subsidised commuter tickets, for example, can help create new travel habits. The best results are obtained if many measures towards the same purpose are adopted at the same time, for example making workplace parking subject to a charge while introducing employer-subsidised commuter tickets. The employer can provide employees with a travel card for public transport, or a joint-use bicycle or car for travel taking place during work.

The travel needs of large workplaces can also be taken into account in public transport planning. In Jyväskylä, for example, the completion of the new central hospital has been taken into consideration when planning the routes and schedules of public transport. Telecommuting can also help reduce travel to and from work. High-quality washing facilities, bicycle parking and electric bike charging stations at the workplace can encourage bicycling as such but also travel chains in which part of the way is covered by bicycle and the other part by public transport.

“And the best public transport city is...”

In a sense, public transport serves as the business card of the city. Even occasional users place importance on the easily and comfortably public transport can be used. A positive user experience is the most important factor when striving to increase passenger numbers in the long term.

A public transport service that satisfies the travel needs of residents should be seen as an investment in a low-carbon, as well as a comfortable, healthy and safe city. There is no single solution for promoting public transport. The good news, however, is that persistent and extensive work to promote public transport produces good results. If the competitiveness of public transport is improved in relation to passenger cars, the number of users begins to increase, making public transport more profitable, which in turn enables the service level to be improved – and the positive cycle is achieved. Positive cycles are truly needed if we wish to achieve the targets set for emissions reduction.

Hanna Mela, Researcher, Finnish Environment Institute SYKE
Johanna Mäkinen, Researcher, University of Tampere

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