Op-Ed: In support of free public transport

From a posting just in from Simon Phillips Norton, Cambridge UK.

I believe that the following arguments can be given in support of the general concept of free transport.

1. It eliminates delays while drivers collect fares. Even when passengers just have to show a pass or swipe an Oystercard that still takes significant time. It is noticeable that motorists often complain when their cars are held up behind buses which are boarding passengers. Why then should bus passengers accept these same delays without complaint ?

Rarely are road tolls allowed to lead to the same level of delays as bus fare collection almost always does.

2. It rebalances the transport system when compared with the fact that the roads are free to motorists for the reasons above.

3. It reduces the total cost of operating the transport system. The cost of running the extra buses and trains needed to carry the extra passengers must
surely, in the longer term, be less than the cost of running the cars whose users would be attracted by free transport — even with systems like carsharing.

4. As a result of this, no net levies are required to support free transport. The money taken out of taxpayers’ pockets, whether by congestion charges, land
value taxes, payroll taxes of what have you, returns straight back in the form of saved fares.

Incidentally I read the comments on Irwin Kellner’s article and was disgusted by the general attitude of most of them. In particular the statement that homeless people would be able to keep warm by riding in buses and this was a reason to oppose the idea. Surely it’s a benefit ? If street people are a public nuisance let’s spend some money to keep them off the streets.

In the UK I remember becoming aware of the problem of street people only after a few years of Mrs Thatcher in power. I strongly suspect that many of the relevant people never use public transport anyway and their reference to street people owes more to prejudice than to personal experience. Or maybe they have come across that notorious Vancouver advertisement and believe what it says.

Simon Norton
Cambridge UK

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About the author (From WP and other sources):

Simon Phillips Norton  is a mathematician in Cambridge, England, who works on finite simple groups. He constructed the Harada–Norton group, and in 1979 together with John Conway proved there is a connection between the Monster group and the j-function in number theory. They dubbed this monstrous moonshine and made some conjectures later proved by Richard Borcherds. Norton was one of the authors of the ATLAS of Finite Groups. He also made several early discoveries in Conway’s Game of Life,[2] and invented the game Snort. Norton is the subject of the biography The Genius In My Basement, written by his Cambridge tenant, Alexander Masters.

Since leaving academics, Norton has become a keen observer of and commentator on public transportation, and he believes he can make it more efficient. When the Deregulation of the Buses Act came into force under Margaret Thatcher, this mundane piece of legislation caused him profound distress. Bus routes were opened to competitive tender and Simon, appalled by the destruction of what he saw as vital public transport services, found a new focus for his intellectual passion. (Source: Frances Hubbard, Daily Mail article of 10 Spetember.)

His fascination with public transport had begun 20 years earlier when he was taking his first degree. On a visit to London University, he came across cache of London Transport publicity leaflets that triggered a devotion that has never waned. Proof of his commitment is the  £10,000 a year he provides to fund the Transport Campaigner of The Year Award. In 2008, it was won by a member of the environmental group Plane Stupid, who proceeded to superglue himself to Gordon Brown’s sleeve when he collected the prize.

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For more on FPT from World Streets: http://worldstreets.wordpress.com/category/economic-instruments/free-public-transport/

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