Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Is public transport for the public?

On a leisurely Saturday afternoon, I ventured down to the ferry with fiancé, child, friend and dog in tow, to take a trip across the river to enjoy a BBQ in the park with friends. I was initially impressed by the frequency of ferries – every 15 minutes on Saturday is pretty good I thought. I was not impressed by being refused entry because of the dog, nor was I impressed with the cost. $3.60 for a one zone return ticket per adult. That was even a discount from the regular cost of $4.80 on a weekday. Remember, these are the cheapest adult fares for a return ticket. For the three of us (luckily infants are free and two of us were full-time students) the cost was $7.20. For three adult fares it would have been $10.80, and if it were a weekday and three adults where headed to the park, it would cost $14.40. Does that seem a little much to anyone else?

We realised that it was cheaper to drive together in one car. Cheaper by a country mile in fact. Even with the fuel price around $1.20, the same round trip would cost less than $2 between us (and we could take the dog). It would still probably have been cheaper to take a car each!

With my economic hat on I saw the reason that the situation exists where private vehicle transport is now cheaper than public transport. Governments have spent decades (centuries?) subsidising private transport, rather than investing in public transport. You could logically argue that private cars are a form of publicly provided transport, since tax revenues are the dominant funding source for road building.

Governments must believe that public transport is not an appropriate or beneficial urban transport alternative. For if that was the case, less money would be spent on roads, and more on public transport, so that the incentives shift towards using public transport. You can’t build more roads and more public transport, and expect there to be a shift towards public transport use. By investing in both alternatives you have not changed the incentive structure – yes it is now cheaper to catch the bus/train/ferry, but it is also cheaper to drive! Public and private transport are substitutes. The more expensive one is, the increase in quantity demanded of the other. Therefore traffic jams, no parking, high registration costs, difficult licensing tests, high fuel costs, and strict vehicle emissions standards all provide incentives to use public transport (but sound like a list of things to promise if you are a government intending to lose the next election). On the other hand, new roads, improved traffic management, more parking, cheaper fuel and registration are good measures for reducing public transport patronage.

1 comment:

  1. In Germany there are group tickets (up to 5 travelers) who pay slightly more than two would pay as long as they travel together. This makes public a genuine alternative to a full car.