A Radical Idea
This was the headline on the front page of The Sunday Age yesterday. The idea? Free public transport. Obviously they'd already ruled out the headline A Fucken Stupid Idea (though clearly not on the basis of bad taste.)
Perhaps next week in The Sunday Age we'll find this on the front page:
A Radical Idea: Print more money to beat recession
A Radical Idea: End crime by locking up lots of criminals
The idea of improving public transport patronage by making it free has superficial appeal, and over a beer or seven at a pub might sound like a decent idea. It's not the sort of thing that deserves serious consideration, though, and it's certainly not the direction that the debate over public transport should head.
The fundamental problem with the idea is that price is not the major impediment to more people using public transport: the real problem is access. Most commuters are happy to pay a reasonable fare provided they are getting a decent service. For commuters in the outer suburbs, no amount of fare reduction is going to make any difference if services are so poor as to be useless. Particularly given the recent spike in petrol prices, the price of public transport tickets compares very favourably already with the private vehicle, a story The Age itself reported.
The Age estimates that the fare abolition of fares would cost about $340 million a year. Rather than spending this money on reducing fares, it would be far more productively spent on infrastructure and services for the outer 'burbs: extention of the train line to South Morang, development of the Rowville train line, evening and weekend bus services. This would do plenty to improve patronage, principly because it actually addresses the genuine barriers potential commuters face rather than a simplistic quick fix.
Rather than moving away from a user-pays approach, we should be moving toward it: for motorists, that is. A congestion tax in the Melbourne CBD is a just and achievable mechanism for shifting motorists out of their cars and onto public transport. It would also shift the burden of maintaining road infrastructure away from the taxpayer and toward the individual motorists who experience the benefits. By increasing the marginal cost of each additional trip a motorist makes, the private vehicle becomes less attractive in the traveller's choice of mode of transport. I did some thinking about this very question for an economics subject last year, and I will share the petrolly fruits of my labour shortly.
Who wants to play "Guess the Intersection"? Maybe Bert will host it.