To bus or not to bus’ How culture affects public transport use

Stark cultural differences in attitudes to public transport have been revealed by an international study featuring a University of Queensland academic.

Researchers interviewed commuters in Anglo and Nordic countries including the United States, the Netherlands and Australia, and Asian nations such as China and India in an attempt to unpick the symbolism associated with public transport uptake.

UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences researcher Dr Dorina Pojani said she was surprised at how differently diverse parts of the world saw public transport.

“On average, professional, educated households in Anglo and Nordic countries are wealthier, so one would expect that they would be more attached to cars and more negative toward public transport,” she said.

“But what we found is that they were actually more indifferent.

“By contrast, professionals in China and India - who haven't experienced car ownership en masse for that long - have already developed very strong and negative attitudes toward public transport.

“That was quite eye-opening, and it appeared that professionals in those countries believed that riding the bus could potentially compromise business relationships or even marriage prospects.”

Dr Pojani - who takes the bus to work - believes that biases toward public transport run deep, and may help foster - or hinder - support for public transport.

“For nearly all of the history of public transit, this field has been dominated by engineers who think they can improve public transport uptake by building more infrastructure or making it run faster.

“But, in reality, this isn’t the full picture. Transport modes like buses, cars and bikes all have strong symbolic significance attached to them.

“Using or shunning a particular mode is a way to express our social status and identity.

“Even if we aren't conscious of it, we may make the decision to ride a bus, not based on how much it costs or whether or takes us where we want to go, but based on how we want to be seen by others.

“In some countries, you may be afraid of appearing to be poor, or simply don’t want to associate with those who typically ride the bus.”

The research suggests that changing these attitudes is critical to develop well-used, sustainable public transport systems across the globe.

“We live in a world of increasing greenhouse gases, accelerating climate change, and rapid depletion of a range of non-renewable resources,” she said.

“We need public transport to be popular, particularly in Asia's megacities such as Beijing or Chennai, where citizens are also suffering from the health impacts of a rapid deterioration in air quality.

“Changing thinking around public transport can help us build a brighter future for all.”

The study is published in the Journal of Transport Geography (DOI: 10.1016/j.jtrangeo.2019.04.008).