A grumpy exchange unfolds on a facebook wall after a comment is made about the increasing cost of bus fares. In January, all public transport fares were increased by 15 per cent – significantly out of kilter with CPI – by the state government. News reports about the rise had Ministers jarringly urging residents to ‘give it a go’ even though cost of living pressures are widely acknowledged and are making an appearance in the election campaign. Another case put for the fare rise was to fund more public transport services can be introduced. The rise makes Queensland’s public transport the third most expensive in the world (behind Oslo and London).
GoCard users pay cheaper fares than those purchasing single tickets from the driver or vending machine. I inadvertently left my GoCard at home one day and, for zone four, ended up paying $7 each way to the city – less than $2 more than a second zone fare. Even so, a 15 per cent rise is felt hard in outer areas or by locationally disadvantaged people/communities. The Brisbane City Council reported that public transport patronage has been decreasing and expressed concern about the high fares acting as a disincentive. According to the Brisbane Times, another 15 per cent increase is planned for the same time next year. While it seems high public transport fares are the price we pay for poor planning, there is nuance to note: “transport disadvantage is typically defined as a difficulty accessing transport as a result of cost, availability of services or poor physical accessibility“.
Without affordable and accessible transport a city grinds to a halt, community wellbeing plummets. The ABS 2010 Measures of Australia’s Progress Report notes that “many aspects of transport relate to whether life in Australia is getting better. Transport helps people access goods and services and can provide people with more freedom about where they choose to work, live and spend free time”. Car travel, with its environmental impacts, remains a cheaper option for many residents. Last week, my local newspaper reported on its online survey about transport, noting that northside residents are questioning their public transport use in the wake of fare rises. The survey also revealed dissatisfaction with the connectivity of the transport system with transport hubs not offering appropriate linkage. Others don’t use public transport because services do not run to their places of work or residence.
I’ve mentioned the VAMPIRE Index in this blog before. It was produced by Griffith University’s Urban Research Program and provides a measure of vulnerability to mortgage, petrol, inflation and expenditure. It raises issues like transport and energy poverty. There is an array of reasons and excuses for people to prefer private car use, especially in meeting family commitments. However the creators of the VAMPIRE study found that people will use public transport when it becomes just to costly not to. However, expensive public transport is likely to keep people in their cars. QCOSS also recognises that access to public transport is a social justice issue. Also note a joint QCOSS /UQ report Making Them Pay: Public Transport Cost Barriers and Queensland’s Unemployed Job Seekers.
A 2008 report, Transportation Affordability: Evaluation and Improvement Strategies, authored by Todd Litman for the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, investigates transport affordability as a policy and planning issue. Transport is about access – without mobility we cannot access services, employment and other activities. We cannot participate. Therefore transport affordability is an access issue. Litman says “increasing transport affordability can provide large economic and social benefits”. Decisions about transport do not happen in isolation and many planning decisions affect transport affordability: “planning decisions that increase accessibility and improve travel options tend to increase affordability”. The report outlines a number of strategies to achieve transport affordability, including planning innovations and behaviour change programs. It doesn’t find that annual 15 per cent fare increases meet social, economic or environmental objectives.
The argument that fare increases will fund additional services seems skewed – since when has public transport funded itself? I still believe public transport is a public good – no one expects it to be self-funding. Just like other public goods, public transport needs to be subsidised. As public transport fares increase it will become more exclusive. Litmans’s study found that low income earners spend higher proportions of their incomes on transport. While many regard public transport as a public good, not everyone agrees e.g. Alan Davies in The Urbanist blog argues so, offering his pragmatic perspective on Melbourne’s fare rises and dispelling some of the objections. So perhaps it’s useful to think about public transport as a commons or as researcher Leigh Glover suggests a common pool resource. Efficient and accessible public transport is now enshrined in every major strategic, urban and regional plan and policy produced in the last decade or so, a significant dimension of Smart Growth. It’s appropriate provision is integral to urban governance, sustainable development and social inclusion.
Note: Fare’s Fair is the name of a public transport advocacy group operating in the 1980s that sought discounted fare’s for unemployed people, who STILL don’t have public transport concessions.