Simon Wilson: Should buses and trains be free?

OPINION:

This year in Salt Lake City, Utah, they declared a “Fare Free February”. Ridership rose 16.2 per cent on weekdays and a very impressive 58.1 per cent on Saturdays. Sundays were high too.

Should we make travel on buses and trains free? Two mayoral candidates want to do it. It’s a cornerstone policy for Efeso Collins, while Leo Molloy has proposed a year-long trial. They amount to the same thing: fares are always under review.

Viv Beck and Craig Lord both say no. They’d prefer the money was spent on improving bus services. Wayne Brown says he’s happy to be guided by council views.

Mayors don’t have the power to set public transport fares, but that’s no matter for now. It’s good they’re telling us what they want to persuade the Government to support.

Under the “farebox recovery” regulations introduced by National in 2010, fares are supposed to pay for “no less than 50 per cent” of the operational cost of public transport services.

Labour hasn’t repealed those regulations but it has allowed Auckland Transport to turn a blind eye. Even before the Government’s temporary half-price fare regime, designed to counter high petrol prices, AT fares were collecting a lot less than 50 per cent of the running costs.

But should fares be abolished altogether?

There are lots of factors in play, including equity issues, carbon emissions, where the money comes from and the impact on congestion. Collins says free fares will lead to increased productivity and increased social connection.

A quick note on “free”. Almost nothing is free, I know. But “free” in this context means there is no user-pays component. The service has already been paid for by taxes, rates or some other mechanism.

Brown says “free things are never appreciated”, and that’s a common view. But is it true?

We don’t pay to use the local park to walk our dogs or take the kids to play. We don’t pay to climb the maunga or picnic at the beach. We don’t pay to watch television.

People value the things they like. It’s not essential that we pay per use. It’s essential we have good experiences using those things. More to the point, perhaps, it’s important we don’t have bad experiences.

Would free fares reduce the number of cars on the road? If it did, that would help with congestion and climate goals. According to the US National Academies of Sciences, a person “riding transit” instead of driving puts nine million fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year.

The targets for public transport in Auckland’s climate plan, Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri, are extremely ambitious, especially in the context of the pandemic.

Pre-Covid, the city reached 103 million boardings a year, accounting for 7.8 per cent of all travel. That collapsed during the pandemic and is only slowly recovering.

But by 2030, the climate plan calls for 360 million boardings a year and a 24.5 per cent share of all trips. The new passengers should mainly be former drivers who leave their cars at home.

Overseas where fares have been made free, however, that’s not what’s happened.

Analysts like to talk about the Estonian capital of Tallinn, which has had free fares since 2013. Passenger numbers are up but car journeys are not down. The extra passengers are largely people who used to walk to work.

It’s much the same in Boston, where Mayor Michelle Wu was elected last year on a free-fares platform. Patronage has risen by up to 38 per cent, but more of those new passengers have switched from walking and cycling than from driving.

According to Mohamed Mezghani, secretary general of the International Association of Public Transport, says: “There’s no evidence at all that cities introducing fare-free public transport have seen their car traffic reduced.”

Perhaps he hasn’t heard of Auckland, where very few people walk to work and cycling is still rising from a low base. There’s no big pool of people walking from Ōtara to their jobs near the airport.

And we already know that improved public transport works: it’s soaked up nearly all the growth in commuter numbers on the harbour bridge and entering the city centre. But there’s still an awful lot of people driving all over the rest of the city. If fares were free, how much of that would change?

For most people, free fares is probably an equity issue. It offers a clear benefit to everyone who has to count every penny. For some, travel costs can be the difference between being able to work and not working.

Matt Lowry at Greater Auckland has calculated that for trips of more than two stages, AT has higher fares than most Australian cities. That’s a burden for anyone living in Manurewa, say, and catching the train to work in Penrose.

But the equity argument is not universally accepted. In the US, research by the non-profit Transit Center suggests low-income passengers would prefer more frequent and reliable service to a reduction in fares.

Executive director David Bragdon calls free fares “a distraction from doing the things that we need to do”. He includes converting general traffic lanes into bus lanes and increasing the number of bus and train services.

“The key to getting people out of automobiles,” he says, “is providing abundant, frequent [public transport] service around the clock.”

How do we do that? Perhaps the biggest problem with making fares free is the opportunity cost. With no farebox income at all, a few hundred million dollars will have to come from somewhere else. What gets cut?

Is it other social services? Is it the abundance of public transport? There’s no value in free if it also means skeletal.

Leo Molloy says the money should come from the unspent component of the regional fuel tax. Craig Lord disagrees and says that money is already allocated to transport projects.

Perhaps the idea has such strong potential benefits, it’s worth a trial. Heaven knows, we can’t just keep doing the same old same old. This is the view of Environment Canterbury, which has proposed a two-year trial of free bus services. There’s a similar idea afoot in Wellington, although it’s been shelved for now.

But if free fares are trialled, improving the services is critical. That, says the Transport Research Centre Verne at Finland’s Tampere University, should focus on travel times.

Researcher Heikki Liimatainen: “If a door-to-door journey on public transport takes as long as it does by car, half of commuters will take public transport and half will drive their cars. If the same trip by bus or train is one-and-a-half times longer, public transport use drops by 25 per cent.”

That’s why the CRL is so important: it will speed up travel times, even as it doubles the rail network capacity. It’s also why AT wants to remove 3 per cent of on-street parking: it will make bus trips faster and cycling safer.

Both Wayne Brown and Molloy are opposed to that plan, Efeso Collins supports it and Beck and Lord say it has good and bad points.

Liimatainen also says the key to reducing the number of cars on the roads is to increase parking charges. Molloy wants parking to be free.

There are no simple solutions, but the most important thing about transport policy is that it should be coherent. The goals are to relieve the burden of transport costs, manage congestion, reduce emissions and make the roads safer. To do all four, everything about public transport – frequency, reliability, travel time and cost – has to become more appealing than taking the car.

And these things need to happen now.

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