Why the public transport election promise is bad policy, but good news.

A super bold plan has come out of the Victorian Government. They pledge to make public transport free in the city centre, and to abolish Zone 2, the higher-fare zone in the outer suburbs.

The idea is clearly a vote winner – a small group of people benefits at the expense of taxpayers everywhere. The Labor party adapted the policy faster than you could say “Harold Hotelling.”

It is a flashy announcement, like putting Protective Services Officers on every station, that reveals its proponents don’t really use public transport and want to believe something – anything! – other than really expensive infrastructure improvements are key determinants of service quality.

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This blog has advocated for free public transport in the past [Myki vs Free PT] but in this case the best I can say is that I don’t hate these ideas.

Let’s have a look at what will really change under this plan:

Free public transport within the city.

Upside: No need to deploy those rude and aggressive ticket police. Accept that the amount of crowding means the service is scarcely worth charging for anyway. Simpler for tourists.

Downside: Amount of crowding is likely to increase as we enter a tragedy of the commons situation. Public transport policy is not tourism policy – using transport policy for other ends is partly why it is not up to scratch. Less revenue to improve the system.

The end of Zone 2.

Upside: Simplicity in the public transport system is good –  people expend physical and mental energy trying to beat the Zone 2 boundary. The people who live in Zone 2 are most likely to need the discount, so there is an equity effect.

Downside: We are not at a stage where we need to encourage patronage on the system – it’s busy enough as it is.  Public transport policy is not social welfare – using it for non-transport policy ends is partly why it is not up to scratch. Less revenue to improve the system. Likely rising fares in Zone 1 over time to recoup lost revenue. 

Essentially, this is a policy with some benefits, but they do not strike at the heart of what our system needs – more services more often to more places. In fact, by reducing the amount of revenue – the Budget will estimate of how big a reduction – it may undermine that true goal.

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What this whole surprise announcement says to me is that the Government recognises Public Transport is its big weakness. And that recognition could make for a big turning point.

This government sailed into power on the failure of Labor to do PT properly, and by promising better PT – to Doncaster, Rowville and the Airport. But it has made a giant road tunnel into its signature reform. Now it is scrabbling to catch up.

The reality is that the Liberal party will probably lose the November election. They have a one-seat majority thanks to the support of corrupt independent Geoff Shaw. They have a premier we never voted for after the previous one was kicked out. They are a shambles. A poll taken in early March has the government behind 47-53. But ex-post, the big narrative to explain the election result will likely be public transport. 

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After the 2010 election, the Frankston line was identified as a crucial issue that lost key seats for Labor. If public transport is once again seen as a swing factor in 2014, the narrative will be established in political operatives’ minds. In Victorian elections, good public transport policy could come to be seen like a pledge not to increase GST, or a stern approach to boat people – an absolute must have for any party to succeed. 

Imagine if the top minister in the government was dedicated to the public transport portfolio. Imagine if that minister actually rode the trams and trains at times when the cameras were not directed at them.

It’s just possible that a golden era of public transport policy is around the corner.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

One thought on “Why the public transport election promise is bad policy, but good news.”

  1. This is depressing – more half baked policy on the run. The only good that can come from the November election is that the expensive and wasteful East West link will be abandoned. I doubt this is going to happen though. The liberals have been a shambles, and it’s obviously they got in without a clear idea of what they wanted to achieve. I fear if the ALP gets back in it won’t do much better. It’s becoming increasingly clear that governments of both shades are unable to tackle anything substantial. I’m not sure what is causing this policy paralysis but there is no shortage of serious problems that need solutions. With all the money sloshing around why can’t they spend a tiny fraction on the only transport solution that is likely to make a difference and provide some serious bike infrastructure.

    Like

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