Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for July 16th, 2007

Paying for ‘Free’ Transit

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Dave Olsen’s five part series ended on Friday and I have been wondering how to respond.

I tend to agree with what he says the professional consensus is: that a fares free system is one that no-one values. In our society, price is an indicator of quality. For example, my local supermarket has many cleaning products, but a whole special shelving area is set aside for new “green” products all of which have one thing in common. They cost a great deal more than the conventional ones. Similarly a number of heavily advertised products are remarkably expensive: for instance the CLR bathroom cleaner is priced at around $12 compared to the average competitor at around $3. Obviously the signal that the maker is trying to send is that this product must be far superior than the cheaper everyday ones. Pricing has very little to do with cost.

He also points out that at present users do not pay to use the roads. And I think that tends to support my stance. Roads are over used exactly because they appear to be free. As long as people walked or rode on push bikes that didn’t matter but once they insisted on travelling in tons of steel, we got troubles! We should indeed devise methods for charging the social cost of road use – including the delay imposed on other road users, the environmental impact and the cost of the road itself. And we certainly should never, ever allow free parking on public roads. They cost us far too much in land alone to allow for such wasteful use. In Tokyo you cannot even own a car if you do not have an off road parking spot (and this in a country that actively encourages its car building companies with heavy penalties for operating older cars).

Mostly my approach says that if we have an extra dollar, where would we spend it first? Not on cutting fares, as that does very little good. Improving service should always be the number one priority. As long as demand exceeds supply (as it does here) we have to tackle needs first – basically more buses and trains. I enjoyed his usual sniping at Translink’s costs. As expected, bloated bureaucracy and transit police are targets. Well, without the limits that fares impose, I think we would need many more transit police on a free system – for crowd control, if nothing else. Oddly enough he does not point out that transit costs are 80% wages and wage related.

The real issue that is not dealt with is how do we increase the market share of transit – not ridership, but share. That means getting people out of cars. Fares do not deter car users from using transit. The biggest component of generalised cost is in vehicle time. The car is always available whenever you want it (no waiting) goes where you want it to (no transfers) is comfortable (no standing, no other passengers to deal with) and you can do what you want (smoke, play the radio loud …). Frankly even if you could deal with these kind of issues many people will never switch modes. So transit very properly concentrates on how to win over those willing to change. And those people just want better services. More frequent, more direct, more comfortable but not necessarily cheaper than they are now.

I do agree that we need to find better ways to pay for transit. And as long as we have a bus dominated system that means we need to have some money dedicated to the right of way. I would rather see dollars spent on bus priority – indeed in Vancouver their major road network (MRN) is essentially complete and they want to spend their MRN money on bike and pedestrian facilities. So if Translink took my advice (they never did but it won’t stop me offering it) they should use an approach which allowed spending on bus priority measures in parity with other off MRN programs for other users. Especially if road space is reallocated to higher density use than SOV. This is simply based on numbers of people moved per hour per lane – which buses (and trams) do much better than cars.

The main thing that is wrong with the Olsen approach is that it starts off with a solution, and then looks for evidence to support it. If he had started with an open minded inquiry into what is wrong with urban transportation, free fares would not have been considered very long. It doesn’t help much. It costs a lot, diverts walkers and bike riders onto transit, and does nothing to win over car drivers. It is the wrong thing to do.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 16, 2007 at 4:08 pm

Posted in Economics, transit

Sound Transit says light rail expansion will cost $7 B less

with 3 comments

KNDO/KNDU Tri-Cities, Yakima, WA |

The earlier estimate contained a math error.”

A billion here, a billion there and before you know where you are, you are talking real money

Written by Stephen Rees

July 16, 2007 at 3:34 pm

Posted in Economics, transit