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Archive for February 24th, 2008

Geneva says “no” to free public transport

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Tram passengers will get no free ride in GenevaSwiss Info
Image caption:

Voters in canton Geneva have turned down an initiative to allow people to travel on local trams and buses for free.The controversial proposal, which was supported by leftwing groups, unions and an association for retired people, was rejected by 67 per cent of Geneva voters on Sunday.

Geneva senator Robert Cramer told journalists he was both pleased and relieved by the result.

“If it had been accepted, it would have led to a considerable reduction in the quality of the Geneva public transport system,” the Green Party politician commented.

Very sensible people the Swiss. Unlikely to be swayed by appeals to emotion. The basic question the proponents had not dealt with was how they proposed to replace the revenue from fares since taxes already cover 55% of the costs. Is that a tax increase you would like, or a cut to some other service like health?

Geneva, just like Vancouver, needs to deal with congestion, and would like to see fewer people driving and more using public transport. But if you give up a big revenue source, you need to replace that just to stand still, let alone cope with an influx of new users. And once there is no fare revenue, additional ridership just increases costs or crowding. The only way to improve the system is to go back to the taxpayers and ask for even more money.

When something is free to use, it gets over consumed. That is why we have a problem with traffic. There is no additional cost to use a car at peak periods other than delay. And the increase in delay caused by the last few people who decide to add themselves to a peak hour flow has a huge impact on delay for all concerned. Oddly, our politicians cannot seem to get their heads around the need to ration road space. Yet we use the price system for nearly everything – and where we don’t, we get “line ups” or “waiting lists”. Time and money are substitutes. So people with time to waste don’t worry about how long they will sit in traffic, and are oblivious to the delay they cause everybody else.

The price system of course does not help people on low incomes. But that is not a reason to abandon it. We all have to pay for our food, and our power, and our shelter – and no one (so far as I know) suggests that these essentials should be free. Income redistribution has been gradually removed from our tax system, with the inevitable result of increasing inequity. Food banks have not solved poverty and neither will free transit.

Now, do not misunderstand me. I am not against free. I really like free software. Open source is also safer, and gets better the more people use it. I also like free education and free health care – and think there should be much more of both. Because both are consumed based on need, and because society is better, the more educated and healthy its people are.

But simply giving away mobility is strangling us. It is not that transit should be free. It is that road space must stop being free to the user. We can no longer afford to pay for infinite amounts of road space. We are, quite literally, running out of planet. And mainly because of the way we have organised personal motorised transportation. Making the next best alternative adopt the same disfunctional distribution system cannot make either better.

And isn’t that a nice looking tram? Wouldn’t look at all out of place on West Broadway – and it’s a darn sight cheaper than a bored tube!

Written by Stephen Rees

February 24, 2008 at 7:32 pm

Posted in Economics, transit, Transportation

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