Designing Transport for Humans, Not Econs

When we move things, rather than people, around efficiently, no feelings need to be taken into account. Planning can be mathematically optimized without any consideration of psychology.

For centuries, transport has been a battle of ideologies: the utilitarians versus the romantics. One side strives to optimize journeys against quantifiable measures while the other nostalgically recounts the joys of travel.

We aim for a more balanced position. We argue that society’s present focus on utilitarian efficiency has run its course and that the romantic view of travel needs to be updated to make transport simpler, more inclusive, and sustainable.

It’s common to hear that transport providers are “simply getting people from A to B”: a low-bar ambition that misses the real purpose of much travel. Imagine if other sectors adopted the same reductionism: if cafes were just about the efficient delivery of calories; if hotels focused solely on their number of beds per square meter; or if health care were solely about longevity, not the reduction of pain. Each of these sectors has certainly experimented with strategies based exclusively on speed and efficiency, and sometimes they’ve gained a short-term competitive advantage by doing so, but it rarely works out well in the long run. Establishing what this all means for transport involves thinking less like an economist and more like a real customer.

Introducing Homo transporticus

Homo economicus, a long-running academic joke, refers to an idealized species of beings who make decisions using rational cost-benefit analysis in an environment of perfect trust, fully aware of all the available options, acting purely in their own self-interest. Outside of academia these conditions exist rarely, if ever.

Look around you at any bus stop, on any train platform or in any traffic queue and you’ll quickly understand that Homo economicus would be a bad avatar for passengers, commuters, customers, drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. But, for many reasons, Homo economicus is often invoked when we design transportation.

More precisely, transport designers have fabricated a new species: Homo transporticus, a cousin of economic man. Homo transporticus is naturally selected to use modern transportation, with abilities that include a full awareness of the modes of travel available, an encyclopedic knowledge of routes and timetables, the ability to navigate them without hindrance, and the ability to compare two options and always choose between them in a way that a planner would consider to be rational. Homo transporticus has stable preferences, makes lightning-fast calculations about cost, convenience, and travel time, and always chooses better options when they are available.

Transport designers have fabricated a new species: Homo transporticus, a cousin of economic man. … [who] has stable preferences, makes lightning-fast calculations about cost, convenience, and travel time, and always chooses better options when they are available.

Certainly, some avid transport enthusiasts aspire to this kind of mastery: memorizing timetables, seating configurations, traffic light timings, and countless more hacks and workarounds. That the system attracts and rewards such dedication reveals its shortcomings. It shouldn’t be this way. Transport is for all humans, not just the ones who are keen enough and foolish enough to spend hours researching, memorizing, and perfecting their trip.

Why we go beyond Homo transporticus

Homo transporticus is an idealized traveler—what economists would call a “representative agent.” Average in every way. These simplifications can simplify demand forecasting, price modeling, and cost-benefit analyses of new infrastructure, but they leave out much that is important. For instance, our physiology, psychology, and differences in mobility.

From a physiological perspective, our bodies are not adapted to the stresses and strains of modern travel. We require a narrow range of temperature, sound, acceleration, and air pressure to ensure we are comfortable and safe. Motion sickness is a conflict between our eyes and our sense of balance. People with long car commutes are more likely than others to have high blood pressure, to suffer from fatigue and to have difficulty focusing their attention—they are even prone to excessive anger.

In hindsight, the supersonic airliner Concorde was an engineering marvel that was incompatible with humans. It produced a deafening boom that prohibited it from overland travel, and the time zone changes across the Atlantic meant it flew too fast for the circadian rhythms of its passengers to adjust. It was the most extreme example of an inherently biological limitation: jet lag. It’s worth noting that Concorde survived financially only because the rock stars and socialites of the 1980s were better adapted—often with assistance from self-administered medication—to push through this barrier of exhaustion. The body naturally adjusts at the rate of one or two time zones per day, meaning that flying from London to Florida, say, will typically require between three and five days of adjustment after landing.

Society’s present focus on utilitarian efficiency has run its course and that the romantic view of travel needs to be updated to make transport simpler, more inclusive, and sustainable.

When it comes to our choices, to travel means to make decisions while we are stressed and uncertain. Taking a trip is expensive, time-pressured, crowded, and often disorientating. Individuals must cooperate with one another and, under stress, observe the social norms that govern tasks like queueing.

Unlike Homo transporticus, we choose how we travel based on yesterday’s experience. Being in a frantic rush means we may jump on a bus even though it’s faster to walk, and when it’s dark and raining we’re less trusting of the indicator that says the next bus will arrive in four minutes.

The appeal to Homo transporticus is also a problem when it comes to data collection, because it means planners often aggregate young and old, rich and poor, and male and female, missing the chance to account for specific human needs, including disability and diversity.

Across the world there are more than one billion people living with severe or moderate disabilities. In the United Kingdom one in five people has a condition that makes travel challenging. This is more than just a physical problem in getting from A to B. In 2019, four in five people with a disability reported feeling stressed or anxious when traveling; half felt this way on every journey. As Isabelle Clement, director of the disabled cycling charity Wheels for Wellbeing, says, “Non-disabled people use their walking time to think about their day plan. Disabled people can’t do that, we have to concentrate.”

By 2050 a quarter of the people in Britain will be over 65. Age does not automatically make us infirm, but because our physical and mental abilities alter when we become older, design really must account for what it is like when millions more people move differently. Considerate improvements to pedestrian and micro-mobility infrastructure not only serve existing users better but also help under-represented demographics. Clear ticketing, good signage, and ramps help the young and the old, the able-bodied, and the disabled alike. We are all, at least occasionally, a long way from being Homo transporticus: when we are new travelers or tourists; when we’re carrying a coffee cup or dragging heavy luggage; and when we are sick, injured, or just generally exhausted.  

Homo transporticus versus Homo sapiens. Source: Transport for Humans

A great deceleration

COVID-19 has been a crisis that will speed up the changes in the way we live and work. By the middle of 2020 nearly half of U.S. workers said they valued the new flexibility they had been given to stay at home two or three days a week as much as they would a 15 percent increase in pay. (This is, incidentally, roughly equal to the average annual household expenditure on transport, which is 13 percent of the total.) But the previous equilibrium was already shifting. Before the pandemic there was already mounting evidence that our patterns of travel were changing.

  • The average household is traveling less. Total trips per person per year in the United Kingdom had declined 8 percent since 2002.
  • Are we past peak car? Vehicle mileage per capita has declined since 2012, and in the United Kingdom it has fallen 12 percent since 2002. Comparing 1995–99 with 2010–14 there has been a 36 percent drop in the number of car driver trips per person made by people aged 17–29.
  • Are we making as many short trips? Outside London, bus trips were down by 28 percent since 2002 according to the Department for Transport. In 2018, revenues for the London underground fell for the first time in a decade.
  • Transport is not all work. Shopping and personal trips declined by 30 percent between 2011 and 2019, while leisure trips were down 20 percent.
  • We still don’t think bike. Roads are more congested. Delivery van trips were up 24 percent between 2014 and 2019, and the number of couriers increased by 40 percent.
  • Workers don’t take the train … season ticket sales in the United Kingdom declined by 17 percent from 2016 to 2019, while rail usage overall increased by 2.8 percent.
  • … or the plane. United Kingdom business travel has been stagnant for the past 10 years according to Department for Transport statistics.
  • But one thing hasn’t changed: across the world, emissions from transport are growing faster than those from any other sector.

We cannot yet know exactly how all this will affect transport planning. Uncertainty over economic performance and global supply chains is affecting both travel demand and travel supply through disruption to energy, fuel, construction, car manufacture and distribution.

Hybrid working might be evenly spread across the week, but if everyone takes advantage of work-from-home Fridays and sticks to the same start and finish times, transport will suffer continued peak-time demand troubles.

U.K. researchers estimate that even if every person who used to commute by car and worked from home during COVID lockdowns were to continue to do so for two days a week, then morning car trips would be cut by only 14 percent—that is a similar reduction to those seen in a typical school half-term holiday. If we’re lucky, though, a diffusion in demand could mean that transport networks adapt dramatically, spreading people out and delivering a higher quality of service.

One thing we can be more certain about is climate change. In the United Kingdom, the Climate Change Committee has calculated that 59 percent of the emissions reductions required to reach net zero will involve some form of societal behavior change. For transport, this includes reducing the amount we travel and making choices to adopt less polluting alternatives. Unfortunately, swapping out old technologies for new is not sufficient: our lifestyles and travel choices will also need to change. Right now, these can be presented as choices to make a positive difference. Effective change now can avert a future in which many aspects of mobility may be constrained by laws and regulations governing everyday life. Historically, during war and pandemics governments have resorted to tough impositions like, “Is your journey really necessary?” Fortunately, when it comes to environmental change, transport has the time and the insight needed to prepare a more balanced set of people-friendly responses. This will involve upstream changes as old technologies are replaced, midstream changes involving regulations and requirements for organizations, and finally downstream changes to how individuals and communities are persuaded to update their travel choices.

The greatest fallacy is that travel time is wasted time, so the only option is to speed it up or cut it out.

The coming decade presents an unprecedented opportunity to rethink ideas about transport—to adapt the system to fit our world’s new priorities. Historically, debates around reform have focused on economics and politics, with particular polarization around public and private ownership. These are important factors, but they are not the only game in town. From our point of view, no matter how transport is financed and governed, it is entirely possible for either system to deliver poor performance.

Fundamentally, what we need are better tools to understand what people who travel value and to expand the ways in which we deliver to meet new societal specifications for cleaner, fairer, and more inclusive transport. In Transport for Humans we argue that behavioral science can deliver the types of innovation that characterized the best of transport planning in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but we will have to radically reset our priorities to do so. The greatest fallacy is that travel time is wasted time, so the only option is to speed it up or cut it out. In reality, we need to invest in higher-quality travel for more people, while also enabling some people to travel less or by different means.

Adapted from Transport for Humans by Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland. Published by London Publishing Partnership. Copyright © 2021 Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland.

Transport for Humans has been written in a personal capacity and does not represent government policy.