Taken for a ride

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

or maybe
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.

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Who wants to play "Guess the Intersection"? Maybe Bert will host it.


Anonymous said…
That article is a joke? Nobody could be loopy enough to seriously suggest a national levy to pay for public transport? This is an April fool article or something?
Anonymous said…
Not sure I see the point in abolishing fares entirely, although these sorts of things need to be looked at from both sides of the fence. I see know harm in funding some cuts to public transport fares if a review finds that prices are prohibiting people from using it, or that the current fares do not justify the quality of the service.
Polly said…
The only people I have heard who seriously suggest public transport should be free are inner-suburban residents, who already have a reasonably functional PT system. If PT was free, I still wouldn't use it to commute to work (from Mulgrave), as the trip takes me up to 2 hours (I tried it for a week, and gave up).

If PT is free, the government will use it as an excuse to never improve existing services or create new ones. Instead it will be - "we've made it free, what more do they expect?"

You're right, Ari - $340million per year pays for a lot of improved and new services, and this is what money for transport should be spent on.
Sammo said…
I've decided to start a grassroots organization: Bloggers For Gramatically Correct Comments.

Anyone interested?

Yeah the free transport idea is a sham, though living 50 yards from the station, free fares would be great for me!
Anonymous said…
Yeah I was wondering what that peson was smoking when they wrote that article.

They obviously shared it with their editor and the page-setter, and next thing you know its front page material.

Speak to any Monash Uni student, ask them if it'd make much difference in their decision making if Public Transport were free in getting to uni. When they lie, punch them in the face and ask them to answer again. No, of course it wouldn't. Its a bloody nightmare to get there by PT and I know - I did it for 4 years, off and on - your train will only take you so far and then you're busing it in the rest of the way from Oakleigh, Huntingdale or Clayton.

I've had arguements with people here at work about the merits of the privatisation of the PT system in Melbourne. Its been fun for me. Their view, since they were from Queensland, was that it was a failure since it didn't encourage greater use of the system. Fulls stop. It was largely based on dodgy article by Sushi Das, so I had a field day tearing them apart.

The services that are available now are an improvement on what existed before. And why? Because there is an incentive for the company's now runnign it to improve them and get more passengers - greater patronage = greater $. Take the $ out of the equation, and what reason do private companies have to attempt to improve their service or make it more enticing? Nil.

Oh, and your intersection? Glen Waverly Line, where it crosses Burke Road, right before Gardiner Station, and the train is city-bound.
Anonymous said…
Public transport is only for retards anyway! Or people so stupid they couldn't pass their learner's permit test. Public transport is already free isn't it? I mean who the fuck wastes time and money actually purchasing tickets?
Anonymous said…
I've changed my mind - the train is Waverly Bound (its on the other side). I had assumed it was travelling right to left (i.e. just entering the picture) but instead its travelling left to right, and just leaving the picture.

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