The case for free public transport

Saturday, March 17, 2007 - 11:00

NSW's big cities, especially Sydney, are poisoning the environment and making us all sicker and more stressed. The longer we continue with the state's "transport model" — where cars carry 78% of people to work and trucks 60% of goods — the worse things will get.

According to CSIRO experts, if Australia continues with "business as usual", by 2011 photochemical smog will increase by 71% and particle emissions (dust, etc) by 61%. That's a guarantee of hundreds more premature deaths per year from respiratory diseases alone.

We can try to put a dollar figure on the cost of this sickening mess: At least $12.2 billion per year, $1786 for every person in NSW.

What alternative is there? The CSIRO says that to reverse this drive to disaster we have to put public transport at the centre of our city development plans. Not surprising, given that trains are 40 times more energy efficient than cars!

But how? Obviously, we won't switch away from car and truck use unless there's huge investment in public transport to make it a real option for the 2.4 million people in NSW who don't use it now.

That's way beyond the tinkering of Premier Morris Iemma's "State Plan" (which sets itself the mighty goal of lifting public transport use by 3% to 25% by 2016!) or opposition leader Peter Debnam's proposals to extend privately owned (and expensive) light rail.

A system that people want to use will have to provide frequent services and place everyone within 10 minutes walk of access, especially in poorly serviced regions like Sydney's west.
It will have to be a publicly owned, integrated system of heavy rail, light rail, ferry and bus services (for more detail, visit

But even that wouldn't be enough. To jump start the switch to public transport we have to make it free.

That's what transport authorities have always done when they really need us to use the public system, as in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics.

It's what many cities, including Perth, Newcastle and Melbourne, have done on specific routes, especially high-use "around the CBD" routes. It's what happened in the Belgian city of Hasselt. Within a year of introducing free bus fares, patronage increased by 870% (now more than 1000%).

If you could be certain of free and frequent public transport, wouldn't you leave the car in the garage? And wouldn't you grab the chance to spend less money and cop less stress going to work, as well as enjoying a healthier environment, safer roads and more chances to get out of town on the weekend? And wouldn't free public transport also help those who most need it, the 800,000 living beneath the poverty line in NSW?

But what about the cost? Free public transport would immediately increase the cost to the NSW government budget by foregoing around $1 billion in fare revenue. More money would also have to be found to increase the capacity of the network.

That sounds like a huge sum until we remember that public transport in NSW already receives grants and subsidies to the tune of $3.4 billion per year.

And that $1 billion would lift NSW's debt as a percentage of the state's annual production by just 0.4%. That's measly, especially given that Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa's plan is for the state's debt ratio to rise by 2% to fund new infrastructure spending (and that NSW big business representatives are egging them on to do it)!

The point to grasp is that the loss of fare income would be more than offset by gains elsewhere as people switched to public transport.

Free public transport would also save money in other parts of the state government budget — in spending on health, road maintenance and construction, and also on ticketing.

Finally, any deficit could easily be cut back by a tax like the Paris system of a 2.2% payroll transport levy on all CBD employers with more than 10 staff - in 2003 this accounted for 65% of the Paris transport budget.

Can free public transport work? Let's give it a try! The Socialist Alliance is calling on the government elected in NSW on March 24 to implement a three-month free public transport trial.

Obviously, such a trial would have to be carefully prepared, especially in those areas where the system is already running at capacity (like Sydney rail at peak hour). But Sydney ran free public transport during the Olympics, and found the extra trains, buses and staff to make the system work.

Anyway, if the system experienced overload it would be proof that people want to return to public transport and that there's a burning need to get extra capacity up and running as soon as possible.

At the end of the trial, let's have a public assessment (involving users and public transport workers and administrators) about how it went. Our health and environment demand it.

The real cost to NSW of car- and truck-based cities

Air pollution: The health cost in Sydney's greater metropolitan region alone (Sydney, the Illawarra and the Lower Hunter) is anywhere between $1 billion and $8.4 billion per year (depending mainly on the price put on life!), with motor vehicles contributing anything between $496 million and $4.7 billion (NSW Department of Environment and Conservation — DEC). A 2003 Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics (BTRE) study put the figure at about $3.3 billion for Australia (about $1.5 billion for NSW).

Road accidents:$3-4 billion per year (based on studies by the BTRE and the Centre for Automotive Safety Research).

Traffic congestion: Estimated at around $7.5 billion per year and rising (BTRE).

Disposal of waste: Road transport generates used vehicles, used tyres and waste oil. The cost of disposal was estimated in 1995 at between $1.2-4.7 million per year (State of the Environment 1997, NSW DEC).

Greenhouse-gas emissions: The transport sector is NSW's second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, around 20% of all energy-related emissions. Road transport accounts for 91.4% of the total (State of the Environment 2006, NSW DEC).

Noise pollution: 1.5 million people in NSW suffer from noise pollution, which is rising with growing car use (State of the Environment 1997, NSW DEC).

Road development and maintenance: Present annual spending by the Roads and Traffic Authority is $2 billion, with more than $700 million going to road and infrastructure maintenance.

Total cost: $12.2 billion (minimum) to $20.9 billion (maximum).

Note: No figures for the cost of greenhouse-gas emissions, or for road maintenance or measures to reduce noise pollution, are included.

[Based on the Socialist Alliance's public transport policy for the NSW election campaign.]

From GLW issue 703