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Why free public transport doesn't add up


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There was lots of discussion around the nation last week about the idea of abolishing fares on public transport. At first glance it might sound like a great idea, but here are 10 issues to think about first.

Making public transport “free” by abolishing fares is one of those perennially popular ideas, but very few cities around the world have actually done it. Various propositions are cited to support it; for example that it would be more equitable, or that public transport, like public education, should be free as a matter of principle.

The most common argument, though, is that it would make travel by public transport much more attractive and consequently lead to significantly lower car use. That in turn would reduce the negatives associated with cars, like traffic congestion, pollution and emissions.

Proponents argue the impact on the budget would be offset to a considerable degree by lower collection and enforcement costs. Some also contend that taxing those whose properties appreciate in value due to public transport infrastructure would provide a replacement revenue stream.

An official figure for farebox revenue is hard to come by; as explained here, my conservative estimate is that it was $650 million in Melbourne in 2011 (after netting out lower collection and enforcement costs).

That all sounds good, but here are 10 issues to consider when assessing the wisdom of abolishing fares:

Public transport has a long history of struggling for funding in Australia. There are a number of reasons for that. One is that it only carries a relatively small proportion of all trips in Australia’s major cities (around one tenth averaged across the capitals). Another is because users don’t make a big contribution to meeting operating costs.

Achieving a step-change in the level of public transport patronage will depend in part on offering a much higher quality of service. But by itself that won’t be anywhere near enough; the key issue is that unless the “price” of driving relative to public transport is increased dramatically (e.g. by congestion charging), public transport will continue to languish as a niche mode.

1. That’s because car use for the journey to work grew 21% over 1996-2011. That was a lot slower than the increase in public transport use but it was from a much larger base.

Alan Davies is a transport and urban development consultant. He blogs for Crikey on urban issues here.




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