Myth: Public transport is obsolete, and progress demands we abandon it
Fact: Trains, trams and buses are no more old-fashioned than motor cars (all having been invented in the mid-to-late 19th century), and claims that one or other is more ‘modern’ are just empty rhetoric. Cars may have looked new and ‘progressive’ fifty years ago, but now we take them pretty much for granted.

This is yet another hoary old myth from the 1950s, when it was still possible to believe that the motor car was the pinnacle of humanity’s quest for efficient and affordable mass transport, and that one day no-one would need public transport because there’d be enough cars, enough petrol and enough space on the roads for everyone.

Belief in ‘progress’ as a metaphysical force compelling humankind to move in particular directions is less fashionable today than in 1950, but it’s still common for road lobbyists to bully local communities with worn-out old cliches like you can’t stop progress, or trains are a 19th-century technology, or it’s pointless turning back the clock. Most recently it was Federal Coalition Leader Tony Abbott, suggesting that nothing signifies progress more than new roads.

Of course there’s nothing inherently old-fashioned about trains and trams, any more than there is about cars, which of course were also invented in the 19th century. (Literature’s oldest well-known petrolhead, Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows, dates from 1908: over a century ago.) And in a democratic society people are not compelled to do things just because someone with a vested interest says there’s no alternative.

Road lobbyists have never tired of this rhetoric about public transport’s ‘outdated’ nature, even if the worldwide boom in public transport use since 2000 has made it look increasingly silly. Now and then a newspaper editor looking for something controversial will give them a few column inches. Here’s John Cox, author of Roads in the Community, writing in The Age in January 2006:

Public transport is in terminal decline – like the horse and carriage being replaced by rail, or video cassettes being replaced by DVDs….

The advent of the car and suburbanisation has seen the share of metropolitan public transport trips drop to about 8 per cent because cars are more convenient for travel around the suburbs and take about half the travel time of public transport….there will be more taxpayers’ money wasted unless the Government realises it cannot turn back the technological clock by promoting a declining transport mode.

And here’s Sydney road lobbyist Peter Stopher, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald in August 2004, but sounding remarkably similar:

The great age of public transport has gone, and governments should embrace what former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher famously called the great car society, rather than dream up strategies to turn the clock back….

Public transport had its heyday before the invention of the car, and [is] unlikely to be embraced on the same level again because of the desire to be mobile and independent.

Since Thatcher’s Great Car Society was roundly rejected by British citizens in the early 1990s – two decades ago – it would appear to be Stopher and Cox themselves trying to turn the clock back! Again, the claim that public transport had its heyday before the car was invented is quite plainly false: the motor car was invented in around 1890, prior to the maturing of most of the world’s urban rail systems and well before the electric tramway boom in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, Cox’s claim of ‘terminal decline’ was followed immediately by a surge in Melbourne public transport patronage, which hit a new record just five years later.

The things that matter when comparing cars and public transport – travel time, convenience, safety, cost – all depend on how transport is planned and operated. As other pages explain, the poor state of public transport in Melbourne is a result of neglect and poor planning, and not of any inherent technological drawbacks. Meanwhile, claims that trains are a 19th-century technology while cars are a ‘modern’ 20th-century technology are just empty rhetoric. Methods of travel should be assessed on their merits, not on silly ideological claims about ‘newness’.

Last modified: 1 July 2012