A few months back, Auckland Transport put out its new fare policy for consultation. The draft policy, which they call Simplified Fares, has two main elements:
- Standardised fare zones that ensure that journeys within or between zones cost the same regardless of whether you’re travelling by bus or rail [ferries are excluded]
- No transfer penalties between services, which is a key element in enabling a frequent connective network.
Those are indeed simple principles, but developing and implementing a fare policy is seldom simple. So the whole thing got me thinking: Why do public transport fares work the way they do? And could we do things differently?
As I’m curious, I figured that I should take a quick look at the economics of fare policies. Part one of the series looks at the biggest-picture question: Why do we subsidise public transport?
First, some background. In most developed-world cities, public transport systems are subsidised by taxpayers. Users pay some of the operating costs – ranging from as low as 10% to as high as 80% – but seldom all. In New Zealand, the national farebox recovery policy requires all regional transport agencies to cover 50% of their public transport costs from fares. However, data from the Ministry of Transport suggests that some agencies are closer than others to this target:
Is 50% the right number for all regions? I don’t know – and the answer depends in part on what other goals we’re trying to accomplish with public transport pricing. But it’s clear that some level of subsidy must be provided in order for the entire transport system to work efficiently.
To see why, we need to take a look at what economists call “second-best pricing”. According to Wikipedia, it can be desirable to impose a subsidy to “offset” for an uncorrected market failure elsewhere:
In an economy with some uncorrectable market failure in one sector, actions to correct market failures in another related sector with the intent of increasing economic efficiency may actually decrease overall economic efficiency. In theory, at least, it may be better to let two market imperfections cancel each other out rather than making an effort to fix either one.
In transport, we have a situation where people have multiple options for getting around. They can drive, take the bus (or train), cycle, etc. In this situation, a price change in one market – say, a fare increase for public transport – can encourage people to switch to another mode instead of paying more.
As I argued in a recent post on congestion pricing, road space is usually not priced “efficiently”. All road users pay fuel taxes or road user charges based on the total number of kilometres driven or litres of petrol used. But they don’t pay more to drive on busy roads, where they impose delays on other drivers. As this diagram from a 2012 UK study on the external costs of driving shows, the last 10-20% of car trips impose significant costs on society.
Public transport can play a useful role in smoothing off the big spike at the right hand side of that chart, by providing a more space-efficient option for travelling on popular, congested routes. Another way of saying that is that in the absence of congestion pricing (and in the presence of other subsidies for driving, such as minimum parking requirements), higher public transport fares can result in a perverse outcome – additional congestion and delays for existing road drivers. This is shown in the following diagram:
Effectively, a failure to price roads efficiently means that we have to provide subsidies for public transport to prevent car commutes from being even more painful than they currently are. Public transport subsidies are, in that sense, subsidies for drivers. By making your neighbor’s bus fare cheaper, they in turn make your drive to work a bit easier.
Finally, it’s worth considering how we got into this situation. 80 or 100 years ago, public transport systems tended to cover their operating costs with fares. For example, Auckland’s tram system was profitable, if in need of maintenance and refurbishment, up until its removal in the mid-1950s. (Mees ref?) This changed, in large part, due to the introduction of subsidised motorways.
This article by Joseph Stomberg at Vox describes how the US interstate highway system was developed in the 1950s as an explicitly subsidised – i.e. not tolled – transport mode:
The first step was changing how roads were funded. In the 1930s, there were already privately owned toll roads in the East, and some public toll highways, like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, were under construction. But auto groups recognized that funding public roads through taxes on gasoline would allow highways to expand much more quickly.
They also decided to call these roads “free roads,” a term that was later replaced by “freeways.” Norton argues that this naming shift was essential in persuading the federal government — and the public — to shift away from tolls. “It started with calling the roads drivers pay for ‘toll roads,’ and calling the ones that taxpayers pay for ‘free roads,'” he says. “Of course, there’s no such thing as a free road.”
In other words, the “original sin” of transport subsidies was the construction of non-tolled highways paid for out of general tax revenues. This choice led in turn to a situation in which we must adopt “second best pricing” in public transport, and offer an offsetting subsidy. I’m not necessarily opposed to this… but it does mean that I am skeptical to complaints that buses and trains are subsidised.
What do you think we should do about public transport pricing?