Sunday, 31 August 2014

Should we have free public transport?

A campaign was recently launched for free public transport in Victoria. The group behind this, Free PT Victoria, had a Twitter account and a website asking you to join, but both seem to have disappeared now, despite gaining a lot of approval from some of the people in my Twitter feed. Nonetheless, they're not the first to push for this and they won't be the last.

The website didn't seem to have any kind of detail on why they think it's a good idea, or how it would work. This is not that surprising, really, as people who advocate free public transport seem to think that it's fairly self-evident why we should have it - just as many of those who think we should pay for it think that's self-evident. So I think it's still worth exploring.

On the one hand, it is true that while fares obviously bring in revenue, you have to offset that against the cost of bringing in those fares. And it is massive. Then you have to maintain the system, add wages for Authorised Officers and other staff...a not-insignificant portion of fare revenue is spent on just collecting it. It's also true that even with this system in place, with all its measures to enforce fares, fare evasion is still pretty rampant (which of course leads to more staff to enforce it, more money spent on advertising campaigns, etc). So you could argue that it would be a lot simpler to just dispense with the whole system.

It's also true that public transport in Victoria, like public transport in most places, survives primarily on government subsidies. The cost of your ticket doesn't even come close to recovering the costs of providing the service - V/Line's subsidy per passenger hovers around $20, roughly equal to the fare passengers pay to get from Southern Cross to Ballarat - so the system is mostly maintained by the taxpayer. You could argue, then, that making public transport free would not be such a radical change - we're already getting a big discount, we'd just be getting a bigger one.

(It is important to note that public transport is not alone in this - private road transport doesn't pay for itself either. Car registration fees and fuel excise don't come close to covering the amount we spend on roads, so the rest is made up by taxpayers/ratepayers. This is, to a degree, as it should be - the government spends taxpayer money to provide this infrastructure because if it didn't, our economic productivity would plummet.)

There is also the equity angle, which seems to be the primary justification for people who haven't looked into it too deeply - part of the reason fares are so heavily subsidised, and part of the reason we have discounted fares for concession card holders, is because we need to have a system for people to get around even if they can't afford a car. In this line of thinking, free public transport is cut from the same cloth as universal healthcare - we have a right to have this, so it should be free to all.

The other bone of contention is the lack of short-term tickets and the lack of top-up services on trams. This has implications for tourists, casual users and when it comes to the top-up question, even regular users. It will be partially mitigated by the plan to make CBD trams free, so I suppose it seems natural that extending free travel across the whole system would solve the problem as a whole. There is no denying these are serious problems, but they are problems with the specific way in which the government has implemented myki - not a user-pays model in general. It's not even a problem inherent to myki itself - they had warehouses full of tram-based myki machines they decided not to install, and changing all myki machines to print short-term paper tickets would require nothing more than a software update.

The opposing view is mostly couched in economic terms. Despite the fact that it does cost a lot to install and maintain these ticketing systems - and while I would very much agree that myki has been an unnecessarily expensive disaster - when you add everything up at the end of the year, it does bring in more than it costs, and to trot out an old cliche, you have to spend money to make money.

More to the point, though, our public transport system has seen a massive increase in patronage over the last decade, and investment has not kept pace. So the system is already overcrowded, and will likely become more so unless governments (plural) get serious about funding it properly. With that in mind, eliminating a major source of revenue, without any indication that government funding would increase, would cripple an already under-resourced system.

Further complicating this is that the above assumes patronage continues on its current trend - which it wouldn't. Making public transport free would make it much more attractive, which means more patrons and induced trips from existing patrons. Which in turn would make overcrowding even worse than it would otherwise be. This is the primary problem with the plan to make CBD trams free - they already experience the worst of the overcrowding, there is no plan in place to fix this, and the one plan that was partially designed to help mitigate it (Melbourne Metro) has been ditched for the Coalition's half-baked alternative.

The arguments for free public transport are quite valid, but they are the justifications for the system we have in place already - that is, a system whereby public transport is greatly subsidised, and where those on lower incomes are subsidised even more. I could even see adding an additional category, where select groups were given free travel because of their specific financial circumstances - but it's not a model that's tenable for everyone.

There are undoubtedly specific failures of the current system that can and should be fixed - myki is of course the big one. It is an omnishambles that Labor stuffed up and the Coalition made worse, but the actions required to fix it are obvious and simple - so someone needs to step up and actually do it. Not abandon the user-pays model altogether.

In a better world, where we had successive governments committed to funding public transport properly - yeah, I could see us providing free public transport. As long as the system had enough funding, free PT would provide economic benefits, it would be more equitable and it would be better for the environment. But at a time where the money just isn't coming from the government and we're desperate for every dollar we can get - where we don't even have the money to maintain the current system properly, let alone expand it - eliminating ticket revenue would be suicide.

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