Op-ed: In Response to Free Public Transport?

Simon Norton comments: Submitted on 2016/08/07


There are 2 overriding arguments for free transport:

  1. It avoids the cost (in both person power and time) of fare collection. The latter is particularly relevant when a bus has to spend ages at bus stops collecting fares from boarding passengers. Then motorists demand that the bus pulls into a layby so that they can get past, and the bus has to waste further time waiting to pull out after all the fares are collected.
  2. It encourages people to think of public transport as the default option. This increases the likelihood of it being able to provide a comprehensive service, as on less used routes it will be able to capture a high proportion of the overall travel demand.

Now for some counter arguments to the ones put forward by Eric:

  1. One may ask whether it is fair that people prevented from living close to their jobs by high house prices should then have to spend a large proportion of their income on commuting.
  2. If one gets used to relying on fares to finance a system, then there will be a temptation to try to eliminate public support altogether — as is currently happening in many parts of the UK.This will apply especially when the customer base has been eroded by high fares, so that people can suffer extreme hardship when services are terminated yet not be able to muster a strong voice to be heard by the people in power.
  3. In the UK, and probably in most countries with high car ownership, crowding is only a problem for at most few hours a day, the rest of the time the problem is too many empty seats. And I think that most public transport users are sensible enough to choose times of day when there is plenty of room when this is an option.
  4. Frankly, there is nothing I would like to see more than the end of the car industry. There would be plenty of compensating jobs available in public transport, and also in enterprises which are currently losing patronage because some of the people who would want to use them have difficulty getting there (or affording the fare to get there).

To move on to Anzir Boodoo’s arguments:

  1. I think this will be offset by people who switch from driving to public transport and therefore at least have the walk to their local bus stop or station and similarly at the other end.
  2. Much of the extra demand will not require more vehicles because there are plenty of empty seats at present. To the extent that more vehicles are needed, they will be more fuel efficient because of less congestion and less waiting time at bus stops for fare collection. And, of course, there will be fewer cars around. Hopefully within a few years buses will use a less polluting fuel than diesel.
  3. I think people are more likely to make less use of hypermarkets, which are currently mainly used by motorists. Many of our city centres, local suburban centres and local shops are struggling and it is difficult to be dogmatic about the merits of a transfer from one of these to another.
  4. Bus users are not “polluters” because the pollution caused by a bus is largely independent of the number of passengers. Agreed, they may have to stop and start to pick up or set down an extra passenger but this should be offset by less congestion and bus stop dwell time as referred to above.
  5. If people value more things they pay for, one of the reasons is surely that those who don’t value them don’t use them. I’d rather those who don’t value public transport still used it in preference to driving.

I think that Brendan Finn’s arguments are mostly covered by my response to 2 above. In my view a society becomes more civilised when more things are available free, and we should aim to make everything free unless there is a compelling need to restrict demand to save resources.

The UK is a prime example of how trying to run public transport as a business ends up running it into the ground.

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Some useful references from World Streets

Most consulted W/S articles on FPT since 2009 (And it’s not over yet!):

* Free Public Transport? Hmm, are you quite sure?

*  All W/S coverage of “Free” “Public Transport”

* No FTP without SCR  (Systematic Car Reductions)

To support Tallinn FTP project, W/S readers comment on FPT

Free Public Transport! (But hey, are we talking about the same thing?)

What is the right price for Free Public Transport?

Free-for-all: Organizations supporting free public transport

* Video: Free Public Transport hits the road in Guadalajara

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About the author:

simon Norton booksSimon 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 Conwayproved 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 September.)

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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About the editor:

Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "BETTER CHOICES: Bringing Sustainable Transport to Your City" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions. A pre-publication edition of Better Choices is currently undergoing an international peer review during Sept.- Oct. 2017, with the goal of publication in English and Chinese editions by end-year. If you wish to participate drop a line to BetterChoices@ecoplan.org .

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One thought on “Op-ed: In Response to Free Public Transport?

  1. “Public Space” is generally mostly free. This includes footpaths, parks, and town squares. If one advocates charging for public transport, it would seem most of the same arguments would apply to public space. And yet few would actually support such a position, principally on grounds of equity.

    There are also ways to make public transport funded on a sustainable basis while making it free to the user. There are cities which utilize a parking levy to completely cover all public transport costs. Such modal funding transfers also carry a great deal of appropriateness when one considers the actual societal costs brought by private motor vehicle use and the actual societal benefits of collective transport.


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