Libertarian blogger LibertyScott ‘kindly’ did a post about this blog last week. LibertyScott has been a regular commenter on this blog over the past few months, and actually is one of the commenters I value most – because he really makes me think and doesn’t simply agree with everything I have to say (not that I don’t like people agreeing with what I say, it’s just good to have your thoughts challenged intelligently).
Clearly, we come from very different ideological views. I’ve never quite got my head around how libertarianism could be practical (the thought of “what about the poor?” seems to kill it off pretty easily), but it’s interesting to see how that ideological difference has an effect on something like transport. While his summary of my perspective is perhaps a little over-simplified, it’s accurate – more public transport is generally a good thing, more use of cars is generally a bad thing, in my opinion.
He then outlines his perspective of transport, which makes for interesting reading really:
I take a different view. I don’t really care how you get yourself around (or your business’s goods around). What primarily matters is that you pay for it.
That means, as far as public transport is concerned, the private sector investing in infrastructure and vehicles based on future projected fare revenue collected from users. As far as roads are concerned, the same basically.
It’s an interesting difference to explore, and I will take a bit of time to explain why (of course) I think my perspective makes more sense. To clearly illustrate my point, I think we’re going to need a few examples that have nothing to do with transport, but put simply my point is: ‘just because one transport system is more user-pays, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more economically effective.’ Furthermore, when one adds in environmental, social and other – particularly effects on land-use patterns – matters, I think simply ‘leaving it to the market’ when it comes to transport doesn’t make good sense.
So, now for those examples. The first one I am going to look at is healthcare. Most people are aware of the difference between New Zealand’s health system and that in the USA – basically that here we get the government to look after health while in the USA it’s sorted out through private providers. Generally, the ‘health outcomes’ of NZ are a bit above those of the USA (I can’t quite be bothered referencing that at the moment, but generally what I have read backs that up), even though the USA spends significantly more of its GDP on healthcare than New Zealand does. That tells me we’ve got things quite a bit more right in NZ than they do in the USA – even though their system is definitely more ‘user-pays’ than ours.
Now my point here isn’t that more government control over something is good and less government control over something is bad – but rather my point is that just because something is more ‘privatised’ and ‘free-market’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a better system. What we need to focus on are the outcomes. To prove that point, I actually think that our health system could learn a lot from what France and Germany do – even though their hospitals are actually generally privately owned and operated (although under strict regulation). Such a shift is probably seen as too ‘right-wing’ for most New Zealanders to comprehend, but in my opinion if it would lead to better health outcomes (as seems reasonably likely as France & Germany have two of the best health systems in the world) then it’s certainly something we should look at.
So, once again, the focus should be on the outcomes – not on the ideology. And, bringing it back to transport, if we start to look at outcomes we see that adopting a full ‘user-pays’ system, like that promoted by LibertyScott, which would probably destroy public transport and lead to immense urban sprawl, doesn’t really make that much sense. Putting aside social, environmental and land-use pattern outcomes for a minute, perhaps the best way to illustrate why auto-dependent sprawling cities aren’t the best outcome (even if they’re the result of a more ‘user-pays’ system) is to focus on the percentage of a city’s wealth that is spent on the transport system. This is well detailed in the three Auckland, City of Cars videos.
Effectively, because of Auckland’s auto-dependency we spend up to three or four times as much of our wealth on transport than someone in Japan or Denmark does. In terms of outcomes, I don’t necessarily think that we have a ‘superior’ transport outcome to any of those other cities that spend far less of their wealth on transport. Auckland is still beset by congestion, and perhaps due to our lack of alternatives, we could argue that our transport outcome is even worse.
So, a similar or worse outcome for three or four times the cost? I certainly think that’s the killer blow for those not wanting to combat our auto-dependency.
To be fair on LibertyScott, his position is hardly one in favour of the kind of roads-centric development that we’ve seen over the past 50 years. One thing that he strongly promotes (in almost every comment he makes on this blog actually) is the need for congestion pricing. The argument is that if road space was ‘priced’ then we would value it much more and think carefully about whether we took a trip or not – especially at peak times. Perhaps if roads were properly priced (which would include the removal of minimum parking requirements) then un-subsidised public transport would become viable and the natural efficiencies of public transport (in terms of taking up less space per person than a car) would shine through. Congestion charging in places like London, Stockholm and Singapore has generally been considered quite a success – although the obvious argument when it’s proposed here in Auckland is our lack of good alternatives. It’s obvious that we need a proper public transport system before we even consider imposing something similar. There are also arguments about whether it’s socially equitable to charge people to travel – as the point of pricing roadspace is to price people off the road, and those most likely to be priced off the road are the poor.
In the end, I do think there is scope for some form of congestion charging. However, I would do it differently. For public transport, I would make a distinction between peak-time fares and off-peak fares – encouraging people to travel more during off-peak times. This should allow patronage to grow without placing the system under quite so much strain – effectively allowing us to use existing tracks, bus lanes and rolling stock (both train and buses) more efficiently by ‘smoothing the peaks’. For roads, I would really push for a strategy that we should not be widening motorways or building new motorways simply for peak demand. At peak times the space efficiency of public transport can ‘come to the fore’, and by building bus lanes, busways, railway lines and turning some motorway lanes into T2 or T3 transit lanes, instead of simply widening motorways we can find a more effective way of dealing with that peak level of demand.
But once again, we must have the ‘outcome’ clearly in mind. Perhaps the economy benefits enormously from having everyone at work at the same time, and that benefit is worth the cost of having our transport system somewhat ‘over-built’ so that it can handle peak-level demand. This is the ‘bigger picture’ that LibertyScott’s user-pays ideology simply cannot measure.
Furthermore, one aspect of the transport argument that gets lost, but which is in my mind the ultimate argument in favour of reducing our auto-dependency, is the interaction between transport and land-use patterns. Or, more simply, the different kinds of cities that different transport systems help create. It is my strong opinion that the more you build a city around cars, the less you build it around people; the friendlier a city is to cars the less friendly it is to people. The vice-versa is obviously true – just look at Venice as an extreme example! Public transport does not suffer from this same inverse relationship, as good public transport tends to encourage higher-quality urban forms, more lively streets and town centres and so forth. Once again, if one simply focuses on a user-pays approach to transport we ignore the wider effects – and in the end everyone loses out.
So in the end, I think perhaps the big difference between LiberyScott and myself is that he focuses on the ‘process’ while I focus on the ‘outcome’. While he doesn’t care ‘how you get around, as long as you pay for it’, I don’t care how you pay for it, as long as what you get in the end are the best outcomes.
I am extremely happy to debate what the best outcomes are and should be, and ways in which to get there. However, I think the funding structure is far less relevant. We should build the project according to how much it is needed, not according to whether it fits into a particular funding mechanism or not.