Stephen Rees's blog

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

Geneva says “no” to free public transport

with 7 comments

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

Tagged with

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Great article.

    I can’t even begin to imagine how much space just Metro Vancouver would gain by converting let’s say 30% of its road space and parking lots into usable space. When I look at traffic I think about how much space one or two people are taking up just to drive around in a large vehicle. Now take 75 cars and put them onto a regular-length bus alone…

    TransLink has a news release with some facts about the current fares, invalidating the “claims people have been making.” They seem to have picked the best/worst-case scenarios to illustrate. But I have to say, it’s NOT expensive… it’s the value for the dollar that I think is a problem and the fact that despite these funding increases we’re not seeing much improvement (at least not outside of the City of Vancouver). The service here can be so bad that making it free alone won’t get people riding. I think if servicing the poor is the issue then we need to give them real tax breaks and start paying them more than $8/hr!

    Erika Rathje

    February 24, 2008 at 9:57 pm

  2. I don’t know how you can say that road space is free. That is like saying health care in Canada is free. The money comes from taxes. Road users pay a large amount of tax from sales tax, to more tax on gasoline. The GST is tax on tax. Truckers, taxi drivers, public transit and other business people pay a lot more to use the so called free road space.

    As a former bus driver I always thought that public transit benefits from other people sharing the roads that buses travel on. If that money was not there the road ways would be in bad shape.

    If the government really wanted to do something about congestion it could. Giving away mobility is not our problem. Over population and excessive accumulation of people into small areas is the problem.


    February 25, 2008 at 5:02 am

  3. Andy – people do not pay to use the road. They pay taxes. When you buy a car, and insure it, and pay to maintain it, that represents a considerable up front investment, so there is an incentive to use it to get some return on that. The amount you drive appears to vary only by gas and parking. Communities have been told that spending money money on roads is “an investment”, while transit is said to be just another wasteful government subsidy.

    Of course transit is better for urban areas – but saying that means I will be called a “social engineer” – because the car and the “free market’ are seen to be synonymous. But in reality we have as much choice about how much is spent on roads as we do on defence, or fisheries protection.

    We need a better way to pay for transportation. Dedicated gas taxes as used in the US just lead to ever more road construction. So yes it is tied to use to some extent, but Americans continue to drive more than anyone else and in bigger vehicles. So that is why I advocate road user charges. We can start with insurance by distance. But in cities we need to add fees that reflect demand, so we can finally tackle congestion effectively and have a revenue stream to pay for more transit.

    And for transit to work, we need population that is at higher densities than most of our region. And also workplaces that are not located out in the boonies surrounded by vast parking lots on what was once the best agricultural land in Canada.

    Stephen Rees

    February 25, 2008 at 8:50 am

  4. […] voted no. While citing a decrease in the level of service as one reason, the primary reason, as Stephen Ree’s blog points out was, “The basic question the proponents had not dealt with was how they proposed […]

  5. The proverbial elephant in the room, and the forest hidden by the trees, is the stratospheric cost of car dependency. It is so big, and our collective subconscience has been so steeped in the mythological “freedom” of personal transportation, that it’s price has become invisible.

    Have a look at this freedom. We are free to be enslaved by the exorbitant personal costs of cars, for almost everyone to deal with the broken bodies and loss of family members, to choose to live in “affordable” housing on arterials that impact one’s quality of life, to pay vast hidden taxes to support sprawl, to hear politicians blather on about the “necessity to limit” the growing costs of a healthcare system largely encumbered with the effects of poor air quality, suburban obesity, and an annual automobuile death and injury rate comparable to waging war.

    One can’t possibly what kind of society we’ve created without looking at the car. The above is just a taste. Erika alludes to another: the huge impact on land use.

    Free transit may not be viable financially, but it sure is a great way to stimulate debate. Geneva started the debate as a city already blessed with good transit and the density to support it. To those who would criticize the “accumulation of people into smaller areas,” I presume you’re not talking about beautiful cities like Geneva because we all know that density is anathema to good urban design … right?

    Regarding the tram on Broadway, if they could run it on the Millennium Line for continuity and to eliminate a hefty proportion of transfers at the Broadway – Commercial station, and somehow mitigate the high level of pedestrian and bike cross traffic on the majority of the 40+ intersections between Main and Alma (which are signalized) yet maintain a semblance of traffic priority and pedestrian safety, then all the more power to them.


    February 25, 2008 at 12:37 pm

  6. Just speaking from experience, I sold my car to my sister in 2005. She needed it more than I did and I was more than happy to part with my hefty annual insurance bill and gas. That added up to a extra few thousand each year. That extra money helped me to purchase my first property within Vancouver proper. If I didn’t sell the car, I wouldn’t be a homeowner today.

    Unfortunately, my wife’s new job requires she drive everywhere in the city. So we’ve taken on the huge liability of another car. Our savings rate has simply tanked.

    I know not everyone looks at the price of a car the same way I do. Many feel that the purchase, insurance, and gas are well worth the cost of mobility. True enough. You can’t beat sitting in your own vehicle without another person standing on top of you in the train.

    Maybe it’s time to create premium rates for some transit riders. I’ve seen it in Hong Kong and China. You pay more for amenities like a guaranteed comfy chair on the train or for air conditioning on a bus. An extra dollar is all it would cost. It’s like giving a choice to ride coach vs. business vs. executive. Maybe that will help with drawing more people to transit. I know I appreciate it when I unexpectedly get a highway coach when travelling out to UBC. Headrests are a godsend.

    Free or lower fares are not the answer. Comfort and amenities to compete with the automobile may be a better solution. And it would still cost less than owning and driving a car by a country mile.


    February 25, 2008 at 1:10 pm

  7. […] readers here will know that I do not think this is a good idea. Neither did the people of Geneva . Though it was a bit of a surprise that Frank Buckholz thought our fares were a bargain. But this […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: