Bus rides can be cheaper if not free

In his first article to Indian Newslink, Auckland Mayoral Candidate John Palino has identified transport and traffic congestion as two great challenges for the largest city in the country.

He said that as well as improving rail network, there was a need to make changes to the existing office hours and encourage people to make less use of their cars.

“We have to build new areas which change the flow, direction and timing of existing travel and provide new, modern transport solutions which reduce the impact of new residents on our stretched network; which is why I am campaigning on a Satellite Centre approach to urban growth management,” he said in his article (see Homelink)

Mr Palino has outlined his ‘Satellite approach,’ saying that the Satellite Centres would provide a bus way or rail station with direct connectivity to Auckland’s Central Business District.

According to some, free bus service would encourage people to leave their cars at home but even as it was mooted, it appears to have been shot down, because of its impracticality and high cost to the City Council.

But there is merit in the proposal, if a scheme of subsidy can be worked out. Bus rides can be made a lot cheaper if not free, because nothing else will make people leave their cars at home and take a ride to their offices, than an efficient and cost-effective public transport system. Car pooling has its advantages but the only way to ease the worsening traffic congestion on Auckland’s roads is better use of public transport system through better and cheaper services.

France may consider a system of proof-of-payment fare collection system in which public transport fares are enforced by inspectors who levy steep fines when they catch commuters without a proper ticket. This may be better than pay-per-ride systems for public transport.

But there is a more radical proposal that could work even better: making public transport free.

Proof-of-payment systems would undoubtedly be an improvement on the inefficient systems that currently dominate American city bus and subway lines.

A few years ago a group of engineers at New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) calculated the amount of time wasted as passengers waited to board and pay fares on a single run of the Bx12 Limited bus route in the Bronx. The answer was 16 minutes and 16 seconds, or over a quarter of the entire run. A proof-of-payment system would have saved time and money.

Since that study, MTA has moved to proof-of-payment systems on several lines, including the Bx12 Limited. Waiting times have fallen and average speeds have improved. But making the buses free could work even better.

As the Economist mentioned, it is not as crazy as it sounds. Fares bring in a lot of money, but they cost money to collect—6% of the MTA’s budget, according to a report in New York magazine.

Fare boxes and turnstiles have to be maintained; buses idle while waiting for passengers to pay up, wasting fuel; and everyone loses time.

Proof-of-payment systems may not solve the problem of fare-collection costs as they require inspectors and other staff to handle enforcement, paperwork and payment processing. Making buses and subways free, on the other hand, would increase passenger numbers, opening up space on the streets for essential traffic and saving time by reducing road congestion.

“In New York, the idea of free buses and subways dates back to at least 1965, when Ted Kheel, a lawyer, first floated the idea and pushed for a doubling of bridge and tunnel fares to make up for lost revenue. Kheel died in 2010, but the modern version of his plan, which would include a congestion charge for cars and trucks entering the Manhattan business district, lives on,” the Economist said.

The big push by New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for congestion-pricing was blocked by the state legislature in April 2008; in 2009 he proposed making cross-town buses free, but that idea has yet to be implemented.

While the Americans have a second look at the proposal, Aucklanders must decide ways and means of reducing congestion on their road. Undoubtedly, the long-term solution will rest on a rail link that connects all parts of the City, electric trains, bus and ferry services that are cheaper and more efficient.

In the short term, the answer may be through cheaper bus fares and better services.

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