Why making driving more enjoyable might not be good for the planet

Much creative and intellectual effort goes into making things nicer for car drivers. Scanning for transport-related ICT innovations, I find lots of projects like this – ‘connected car’ projects that are about making sure that drivers have access to their multimedia content, or Intellgent Parking Assist systems, for example.
Some projects are about making personal transport (and even car driving) more sustainable – for example, the various ‘eco-driving’ applications designed to give car drivers information about how they could reduce fuel use by driving more carefully.
Of course, some projects both make driving nicer and also help to reduce the environmental impact of driving. Since most of the fuel use (and therefore of the carbon emissions) produced by urban driving are caused by slowing down or speeding up, route planning applications not only shorten journeys and make them more pleasant, but if they help the driver to avoid the most congested routes they do reduce the impact of the car journey. Similarly, driving around looking for somewhere to park uses a lot of fuel and produces a lot of emissions; if drivers could pre-book their parking space they’d not only be happier but also do less environmental damage.
The ICT industries are mainly run for profit. They want to make things that they can sell. Drivers mainly want to buy things (services, applications, gadgets, whatever) that make them happier. They are not for the most part interested in things that will deliver a benefit for someone else – a polar bear, a starving African, a member of future generations. So it’s not surprising that this is where the effort goes.
Trouble is, making things nicer for drivers makes them more likely to use their cars, more likely to use them for longer, and less likely to shift to other modes of transport. The academic David Metz analysed the BritishTravel Survey data to demonstrate that, notwithstanding all the investment that has gone into the UK road system in the name of reducing travel time, actual travel time remains remarkably consistent over a thirty-year period. So where did all the saved time go? Into journeys that took the same time but went a little further.
Metz argues that this is what rational-choice theory would predict. Backpackers and JeremyClarkson excepted, most people don’t travel for the sake of it (at least not their habitual journeys) but because it is a means to an end. Commuting extends the job market (or conversely, the housing market) in which we can participate. Driving to the shops extends the range of outlets from which we can buy, thereby improving our bargaining power with potential suppliers. We don’t travel for hours and hours because there is a diminishing benefit from travelling further, and at some point the additional utility becomes offset by the misery of the travelling itself.
So ICT innovations which make travelling more pleasant, or less unpleasant, make us travel more – because they shift the balance in the misery/benefit calculation. If I can listen to the music that I really like, the journey won’t seem so bad, and I’ll drive a few minutes more. The certainty of knowing there will be a place to park at the end of the journey takes a little more misery out of the equation. So does avoiding having to manoeuvre through congested traffic, or being able to do something else useful with the time, like talk to someone. Even safety-related applications and services have a similar impact; part of the misery-price of travel is the anxiety and the vigilance required not to crash.
This isn’t to say that everything which makes life better for drivers must automatically be worse for the planet. It’s possible that the overall benefit of say, a parking app that helps drivers find parking quicker outweighs the impact of all the journeys that might not have been taken for fear of not finding a place to park. But remember that no-one can make any money out of selling you a journey not made, while the parking app and associated service is a nice little earner for someone. Claims that a new widget or service promotes sustainability need to be subject to the ‘cui bono‘ test.
That’s why I think that applications and services that are aimed at the system level – traffic flow management systems, for example – at least hold out some hope that they might deliver more sustainability benefits. Services aimed at individual users have to persuade those users to buy them, and people mainly buy stuff that is intended to make them happier. There wouldn’t be much market for a car-based ‘misery box’, though it would do wonders for the planet. 
Happy new year…

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