By Kim Powell
Only 20 to 30 per cent of the costs of running public transport are recouped through fares, so given how little revenue it raises, would more people use public transport if it was free?
Daniel Bowen, president of lobby group Public Transport Users Association in Victoria, says the “number one reason more people don’t use public transport is that the services are inadequate”. He says two thirds of Melbourne lacks useable services that run every 20 minutes or better.
“This makes almost all trips by public transport uncompetitive with car travel,” Mr Bowen says.
“And while the recent increases in petrol prices has been said to encourage public transport usage in those few areas where public transport is good enough to provide an alternative, the reality is that most people in Australia are stuck with their cars, like it or not.”
Another problem, Mr Bowen says, is that public transport pricing is not competitive with car travel.
“Many car drivers are claiming tax deductions for their car travel – and even worse, the current tax system perversely offers more tax benefits for driving further,” he says.
“There are no such deductions applicable to public transport tickets. At the very least the tax system should offer an equal playing field with respect to public transport and car running costs.”
Free travel operates in Melbourne on Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve, and ticket-holders for the recent Commonwealth Games also enjoyed free public transport. According to Mr Bowen, these initiatives are useful for getting new customers to try public transport, but the patronage boost is short-lived if it’s not backed up by good services.
“Given the choice between offering ongoing free travel and improving services, we would always argue that you get more patronage from improving services, rather than by subsidising the system for those few who currently have usable services,” he says.
Authorities in San Francisco have begun altering the public’s behaviour on hot, stagnant days. The Spare the Air initiative is part of the Clean Air Plan that asks people to postpone polluting activities, such as recreational boating and using two-stroke fuel, during forecast bad air days.
Luna Salaver, Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) senior public information officer, says these activities generate almost 200 tons per day of reactive organic emissions.
“The largest single source of air pollution in the Bay Area is the automobile,” she says.
“Motor vehicles contribute over 50 per cent of the hydrocarbons and 80 per cent of the carbon monoxide in the Bay Area.”
While the Clean Air Plan started in 1991, the free transport element was added in 2004. This year, the BAAQMD and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission are partnering with 26 transit operators to offer free travel all day during the first three Spare the Air weekdays. Additional services operate on these days to cope with demand.
“Preliminary numbers show an average of 15 per cent increase on those days, resulting in 222,700 additional riders per Spare the Air day on public transit,” she says.
Ms Salaver says the estimated cost to taxpayers from lost fare revenue is about $2 million but, despite some complaints from regular commuters about longer queues, many people love the program.
“The 2006 program was unprecedented in building awareness about the link between air quality and public transportation,” she says.
“On the first Spare the Air day after the free fare program was over, the Bay Area Rapid Transit had 20,000 more riders, so folks chose transit over driving alone, even when they had to pay.”
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