Is public transport safe?

30th July, 2005

Dear Economist,
After this month’s attacks on the underground, I’m frightened to travel on public transport. Can you offer any advice?

Yours sincerely,

Cath Higgins, Hackney

Dear Cath,

First, let’s consider the risks dispassionately. By switching to a car or bicycle you replace one risk with another. Last year in London, 216 people were killed on the roads and nearly 4,000 seriously injured. A cyclist crushed by a lorry is no better off for having escaped the bombers, and nor are her loved ones.

Still, what traffic does in three months, terrorists achieved in an hour. Will similarly deadly attacks occur frequently, or not? No one can say, but the experience of Madrid and New York suggests terrorist cells, thankfully, aren’t up to the job of a sustained campaign.

Less obviously, the likelihood of bombings in 2006 doesn’t seem higher than it was in 2004. We were always told an attack was inevitable, so the fact that it finally happened shouldn’t radically alter your perception of the dangers.

So much for dispassionate analysis. We both know that fear is not just a matter of objective risk. A flight I took weeks after 9/11 was a miserable experience: it was safe but didn’t feel that way. So Nobel laureate Gary Becker and Israeli economist Yona Rubinstein have studied how people respond to their fears of terrorism. For example, casual travellers stayed away after attacks on buses in Israel, but the drivers stayed in their jobs for no extra pay and the season-ticket holders renewed their tickets. These frequent users were in greater danger but didn’t flinch. Becker and Rubinstein suggest an explanation: facing your fears is something you only have to do once, but regular travellers enjoy the benefits every day. Gather up your courage and buy your travelcard on Monday.

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