Usually about once a year, often around this time, the issue of public transport fares comes up, often in relation to Auckland Transport’s annual fare review. Sometimes the discussion revolves around whether we should have fares at all.
That debate was reignited yesterday by Todd Niall at Stuff, initially in an opinion piece and later in the day in an article. In the opinion piece he opened by noting the goal of getting more Aucklanders out of cars before saying:
In December, Auckland tried for one afternoon to do that – by making public transport fare-free.
So why not do it every day? Scrap fares as a powerful incentive to make public transport irresistible, cutting pollution and travel times.
It’s not a new or unique idea. The Estonian city of Tallinn in 2013 became the first European capital to scrap fares for its 420,000 residents.
Luxembourg follows suit this year in a small country of 107,000, that is swamped daily by 400,000 commuters from neighbouring countries.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has just announced free public transport travel for under-11s from September.
Three smaller French cities, and 14 towns also do fare-free public transport.
I think there are generally two key issues when it comes to the issue of free public transport
- Can the system cope
- Who pays for it.
Let’s quickly look at each of these
Can the system cope
As I commented in the later article, one important difference between Auckland and most European cities is simply the level of maturity of the comparative PT networks. While I’m not suggesting those city’s networks are perfect, or even complete, in Auckland we can’t even get our rail network, which is meant to be the backbone of the PT system, to run frequently off peak or on weekends. There are many other routes that are in a similar situation and many of the routes that are considered “frequent” are only borderline so.
In addition, at peak times many routes, such as Mt Eden Rd, are already at capacity leaving long delays for some passengers even though there are frequent services. We also already have Auckland Transport saying they won’t have enough capacity on some routes for the coming March Madness.
And now for my photo essay on why light rail isn't just about getting to / from the airport pic.twitter.com/wBFuyPSrTS
— Kim Baker Wilson (@kimbakerwilson) October 10, 2018
Put all this another way, Auckland is still very much in catch-up mode. And this is all before considering the ridership impact from making PT free.
Yet, the most commonly cited reason for making public transport free is that it will get more people to use it. I don’t know just how many extra people might start using PT if it was free but in general to move more people it means we need more services and/or capacity. That means we need more buses, more drivers and more higher capacity options like the City Rail Link and Light Rail.
It’s also worth remembering that in many public surveys, by far the most commonly mentioned thing people would like to see done to improve public transport is not cheaper or free fares but improved frequencies. Make the system more useful and more people will use it.
What was interesting was to see the reaction to the free PT afternoon before Christmas. I think it genuinely got a lot of people excited and perhaps even trying PT but it’s hard to know how much of that was a one off and how much any increase of use would be sustained over the long term. Note: I’ve already asked AT for some information on how that Friday went but haven’t heard anything back at this point.
Even if you manage to get enough service/capacity on, there’s still the other key issue
Who pays for it
The issue is described by Niall again in his opinion piece. This is in response to a previous suggestion of free PT:
It was assessed by AT’s Commercial Manager David Stephenson for senior executives in a paper revealingly subtitled “Fare Free Public Transport for Auckland – There’s no such thing as a free ride”.
Stephenson concluded that as a purely political goal, free public transport may be a legitimate idea.
“But when free fare schemes are advocated and justified as a means to meeting environmental, social or efficiency goals, the evidence presented suggests the arguments are largely misguided.”
Stephenson is right, public transport can never be free. It has to be paid for somehow.
In Auckland, the fares cover only 46 per cent of the cost of services. So we are already 54 per cent of the way to being fare free.
Giving up those fares would cost Auckland $176 million a year, and AT estimates increased demand would cost an extra $60m to meet.
Like most things, quantifying the costs is easy. Totting up the value of benefits to health, the environment, the need to accommodate growing vehicle numbers – that’s too hard.
The fares that people pay go in part to pay for the services and $236 million is a significant chunk of money would need to be paid for some other way, either by council, government or a combination of the two. It’s worth noting that the $176 million doesn’t include the fares collected on ferries which is at about $35 million annually.
But let’s say hypothetically that tomorrow the government suddenly offered Auckland Transport an extra $236 million (plus inflation) annually to spend on public transport but didn’t specify what it was for. The question that would need to be answered is whether spending that on reducing fares, primarily for existing users, is the best way to spend that. Based on what we’ve seen so far with ridership growth, most likely the best outcome would be to spend most of that extra funding on more services and some targeted fare reductions and perhaps extending the Supergold card model to perhaps younger people and those on low incomes and having cheaper fares off-peak and weekends.
One of the issues with this debate is there is a lot we simply don’t know, such as:
- At what point is our PT network mature enough?
- What are the optimum fare levels to maximise ridership?
- What are the social and economic benefits of getting more people on PT?
- What impacts would any changes in /demand from such changes have on other projects?
- How much do we save in time and operating costs of not having to run a fare system – Auckland Transport has $120 million budgeted over the next decade to upgrade and then replace the HOP system.
At least for the first question, my guess is at earliest sometime in the next 5-10 years. That’s because within that timeframe we will have had completed
- City Rail Link
- Light Rail to Mangere and the Northwest
- Eastern Busway
- The first stages of Airport to Botany
- Improved services with more frequent routes and a more frequent “frequent” definition.
- The corridor programme to improve bus priority on busy bus routes.
Combined, that should hopefully put us in a good position at least to deal with some of the capacity and service issues.
AT should at least look at the idea as it might help them to understand some of their options better, particularly in light of a more PT friendly government.