What is the role of public transport in fighting climate change and promoting better societies?
Public transport systems, whether they are buses, trains, light trains, trams or free bicycles, offer comparatively low-energy cost mobility solutions for people in cities and also in rural areas. In the large urban areas in which many of us live, public transport systems not only provide convenient means of negotiating crowded city streets but can also be oases of relative quiet and air-conditioned cool (or warmth for those in cold climates). However, they can also be too expensive for poor people, especially in cities in developing countries. This can lead to a two-tier system of mobility, in which the wealthier people can move about with some convenience while the poor must slog along the hot and dirty roads.
In terms of rural areas, public transport can be essential for poor people to continue to maintain a decent standard of living: rural isolation can be a terribly debilitating problem for people (often women, of course) stuck in out of the way places and without the opportunity not just to do household tasks such as shopping and paying bills but also in creating and reproducing social and family relationships and support networks. Poor people – all people in fact, in different ways – need networks of other people in order to make their lives better, to give and receive help when necessary and share information and advice and so forth. In some cases, people can conduct some of these relationships online or by telephone but coverage may be difficult to obtain and expensive in rural areas and, anyway, that is not an adequate alternative to all needs.
Public transport is called ‘public’ not just because it is open to everyone but because it is a public good that should belong to everyone (i.e. it should be state-owned). That is because it provides a public service which will not always make a profit: a private-sector service might be able to make a profit in some cities or suburban areas but will not make a profit providing services to small numbers of people in remote areas or late at night or weekends and other low-demand periods. Experience shows that when private-sector interests are involved with mass transit systems, the overall level of service falls because prices rise continually while investment in maintenance and improvement of safety and vehicles and so forth declines. Of course, publicly-owned transport systems can also be underfunded and unsafe but they do at least have the mandate of providing a service rather than making a profit.