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760Reinventing Transport in Cities: Pillar 1- Public transport should be free

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  • eric.britton@ecoplan.org
    Sep 3, 2007
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      Dear Brendan, 

       

      I don’t want to get overly stuck on the world “free” here, a source probably of more heat than light,. So let me just pop in a few thinking points on this in an attempt to explore all this a bit more and perhaps more creatively;

       

      1. Private cars do not “work” in most of our cities -- so the alternative mobility model should be based on other kinds of services, and specifically a rich range of travel options that together can provide “better than cars” access (and economics) to all concerned.
      2. High quality service – which is what we need – is going to cost money.
      3. Cities with mobility systems that work well have healthier local commerce, higher real estate values and tax bases than those that do not.
      4. “Public transport” (more or less fixed route, fixed schedule services)  should be as seamless as we can make it. This means that users should have easy access and that barriers such as fare boxes need to be removed.
      5. Well working transport services of all kinds require tight information feedback loops, bringing us straight to smart cards of various types.
      6. There are a growing number of cities around the world that are actually delivering free transit services today.  And I am rather sure that these are not anomalies nor guilty of soviet-style inefficiencies.  (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-fare_public_transport for some more on this.. A bit rough but still a useful first point of reference if needed.))
      7. The Paris Carte Orange experience is one interesting experience to ponder (there are plenty of others but what is particularly interesting about the Carte is that it has been around for a long time and has in many ways shown the way). The Carte is financed through a number of revenue streams, of which the actual traveler contribution is less than half.
      8. There are, as you and others point out, lots more poor people depending on public transit in most places (the usual captive riders) which certainly suggests that it would be unfair and potentially dangerous to hit them with the full bill for transit.  And they deserve high quality transportation.
      9. All of which suggest to me that we need to put on our thinking hats and really give attention to new ways of financing and accessing transport. Fortunately the present systems that we have in most places are so terribly expensive and so grossly underperforming on just about all bases, that it is in fact an easy model to improve on.

       

      What I am trying to get at here is that we will do very badly if we fail to take these points into account as we rethink our transportation arrangements . Which we very definitely should be doing.

       

      Best/Eric

       

       

      -----Original Message-----
      From: Brendan Finn [mailto:etts@...]
      Sent:
      Monday, September 03, 2007 10:48 AM
      Subject: Re: Reinventing Transport in Cities: Pillar 1- Public transport should be free

       

      Dear Eric,

       

      I think we are at cross-purposes here. Let me spell out the two main concerns I have about free or under-priced transit :

       

      1) Sooner or later, an incoming government will change the ground rules and either pull the funding or deregulate the market, with devastating and long-lasting effect. The only question is whether it will be a drastic shock, or death by a thousand cuts. The issue is vulnerability caused by dependency, and the history of urban areas and public transport is littered with such casualties.

       

      2) Funding free public transport is very inefficient, since a huge amount of money is required just to keep basic services going. But most users have the affordability and willingness to pay fares, especially for a good quality product. (Perhaps the USA is an exception, if only the socially marginalised ride the bus). For example, if bus services in Dublin were free, it would require an annual subsidy of over $200 million just to keep the current service working. Nonetheless, the money is gone just to give them what they have already (and grumble about). Consider, by contrast, the dramatic impact of the same $200 million annually spent on a combination of BRT and bus-lanes, short-term subsidy to launch new routes, more buses to guarantee a seat, customer-care programs, subsidy for revenue losses due to fare integration. Spend the money where it has the most impact, both on the quality of service and capturing the public's attention.

       

      Today's public transport already costs money. If you want 'better than car', it's going to cost an awful lot more. People are willing to pay for everything else - bread, shoes, electricity, going to the movies. Finding a balance between what the user pays, and who pays for what (users pay for operations, society invests in infrastructure and improvements) is not 'old-thinking', it's in line with everything else in life. 

      With best wishes,

       

       

      Brendan.