Finding happiness on public transport

Last week I told a taxi driver I was considering selling my car. He was incredulous. Despite the fact he’d benefit from people selling up, he urged me not to. ‘You’ll regret it,’ he said, pointing out a car not only gives freedom for movement but also separation. ‘I never get the bus anymore. I hate all that noise, all the people, all the screaming children,’ he said. It turned out he was a loving dad to three noisy children of his own. He just didn’t want to encounter anyone else’s.

I was hardly surprised a taxi driver believes in car travel. But I was struck by the difference between our experiences of public transport. What he hated about it was exactly what I loved: the people, the noise, the life, even the effort of getting a train or bus.

This taxi driver is not alone. I’ve discussed our trial with many London friends, who despite being comparatively heavy users of public transport, always resort to the car for longer trips across the capital, especially with children. The alternatives, they say, are just too difficult or uncomfortable.

But I am beginning to question whether their car nirvana is real or imagined. The taxi driver insists his car brings freedom. But does it? Is it really liberating to be trapped and blinkered, crawling along the Euston Road on a wet Sunday evening? It is hardly the Pacific Coast Highway.

Families presume trains are too awkward. I have written about the trials of taking trains beyond the capital, but our experiences in London have been positive. Even last weekend in snow and sleet and with parts of the London Overground suspended, we returned from a trip to Richmond, on the other side of London, in a much better mood than if we had been stuck in a car.

The difference is that the journey isn’t dead time, but part of the life and experience of the day. A train ride is essential research for my son, a transport enthusiast. It’s chance to study maps and explore new interchanges. It’s time to read school books, do homework or the grocery shopping online without feeling carsick. I love to people-watch and enjoy the views as we soar over the rooftops of London on the brilliant elevated London Overground line.

But I think the main reason we return happier is because we’ve used some energy walking to stations and running for trains. A 2014 study by University of East Anglia of 18,000 British workers, using 18 years of data, found that a commute that involved some physical activity improved psychological health including feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness, and sleepless nights.

The issue with car travel, said researchers, is that it is a ‘non-passive travel mode that requires constant concentration [that] can give rise to boredom, social isolation and stress’. Whereas public transport, walking or cycling is ‘active travel’ that provides both exercise and time to relax.

Of course, the experience could be a lot better for active travellers. We’ve taken the train a few times now to Barnes Bridge station and the welcome there is horrific.  Pedestrians are side-lined onto a tiny strip of pavement, their view of the Thames completely marred by a fast-moving, noisy stream of cars. It’s as if the council doesn’t expect or want anyone to arrive by train.

I was happy to see a policy included in the Mayor’s draft transport strategy to improve the experience around stations in order to make active travel the default option. As it proposes, ‘the first things passengers will see on emerging from the station will be walking directions and maps, cycle hire facilities, bus connections and an attractive public realm, rather than car parking and pickup’. This sort of welcome sends a strong message that you don’t need a car to navigate this city.

It’s going to be hard jolting my taxi driver out of his auto world. Drivers have been sold the dream for too long. But small encouragements such as better facilities and experiences for transport, walking and cycling, plus more pushes like congestion charging and road filters, might wake him from the dream. And the new reality he wakes to might not be that bad after all.