Changes in design ideology 1980s to 2000s by Massimo Vignelli (click to see the 1960s and 1970s)

The draft report of Alan Fel’s Taxi Industry Inquiry released last week, Customers First, has a section (p64) discussing whether or not taxis are regarded as public transport. That might sound like it’s only of academic interest, but it has important policy implications.

The Inquiry concludes they aren’t:

The inquiry considers that taxis are not public transport. Taxis are a mode of private commercial transport that plays two key roles in the transport system: they are a complement to public transport and also an alternative to public transport.

By ‘complement’, the inquiry means taxis provide transport in situations such as the early hours when public transport has stopped operating. By ‘alternative’, it means taxis are often the only option for those with handicaps who can’t access trains or buses.

The Inquiry is only interested in taxis, but I think it’s an interesting exercise to think about what distinguishes public from private transport. Scheduled trains and plane services might seem obvious, but then there’re charter flights and buses, taxis, hire cars, car-share, bicycles, bike-share and so on. Are they public or private transport?

There’s a popular view that public transport means those modes that are owned and/or operated by government. That’s not a satisfactory definition because all modes have many examples of both private and public ownership. There are also examples where all modes operate without direct subsidy.

Another popular view is that public transport means the more sustainable modes. That’s not really satisfactory either. Public transport in Melbourne, for example, is no more sustainable than car travel because of all those lightly patronised off-peak services. Nor is there anything especially “public” about cycling and walking.

It’s worth thinking seriously for a moment about how the difference between modes might be defined. Doubtless there are other ways to approach the task but it strikes me, at least at first glance, that a plausible way is to think in terms of a continuum of control along three key dimensions – control over access; control over privacy; and control over time.

Drivers control who has access to their cars – admission is solely by invitation. The same holds for motor cycle and bicycle riders. Charters are also often restricted to a limited set of travellers. However trains, buses and planes are open to everyone. So are taxis, car-share and bike-share.

The second dimension – privacy – is about sharing or not sharing. As noted, drivers decide who will travel with them in their car and many choose to travel alone. Scheduled services like trains and planes however are at the other end of the continuum – they’re the least private mode.

Passengers on scheduled services are strangers. Moreover they often sit or stand in very close proximity. The levels of crowding, security and shared norms about appropriate behaviour are important factors determining the quality of travel.

There can be differences of degree though. For example, first class passengers on international flights have considerably greater privacy than those in cattle class – ticket prices are a formidable barrier to entry. I suspect too that iPods provide many city travellers with a modicum of virtual privacy.

Taxis are somewhere in between. They’re open to everyone but, like those who travel in cars, taxi passengers travel alone or decide who travels with them. They’ve got a high degree of privacy except they have to share with the driver, who may or may not be a pleasant travelling companion.

A charter service, typically a plane or a bus, is further along the continuum, since the passengers usually have something in common or have agreed to a common manager. They might, for example, be members of the same club or school.

The third factor is control over time. The key ideas here are availability and travel time.

Drivers and cyclists have maximum flexibility to choose when to start a journey, what route to take, and whether or not to stop mid-journey. Taxis are also on-demand and take a direct route, but aren’t as fast because they involve a wait after booking or while looking for one to hail on the street.

Scheduled services like city trains are again at the other end of the continuum because they’re tied to a timetable and a span of operating hours (although charter services are arguably the most inflexible because if you miss the service there’s no next one to wait for).

They take a reasonably direct route but often involve at least some stops to pick-up and let down passengers. Some involve connecting with other services or modes. Local bus services are invariably the slowest due to circuitous routes and closely-spaced stops.

I think the first two dimensions in my schema – access and sharing – are the most important ones. It seems to me they capture most of the essence of what we mean by “public” transport. That’s an important point because it helps counter the implicit preconception that public transport must be government owned and operated. Some modes in some circumstances should be operated by government, but I don’t think that’s true in all cases.

I can see why the Inquiry concluded taxis aren’t public transport – in some ways they’re just a chauffered car. But since they’re available for anyone to use, just like trains and buses, I think there’s good reason to think of them as “public” transport. If it’s 3 am and you’re in the city on a freezing night, you can’t take my car, but you can take a cab home (that’s if you can find one of course!).