Free buses: when radical is sensible

Buses in George St, Dunedin in 2006, when this article was written. ODT file photo.
Buses in George St, Dunedin in 2006, when this article was written. ODT file photo.
The notion of fare-free public transport is back in the news. This opinion article appeared in the Otago Daily Times in 2006.

Dunedin City Council’s draft transportation strategy options for improving the transport networks is to “encourage mode change”. This aims to “cater for growth predominantly through passenger transport” and to enhance walking and cycling.

When this was compared with the other options (such as the status quo or more roads), it measured up very well in most of the “assessment criteria” (such as improving efficiency, sustainability or mobility). The council’s transport strategy working party didn’t think it would improve safety much, which is odd: Professor David Hasler at the University of New South Wales in Sydney has demonstrated that bus travel is seven times safer than car travel.

The working party also failed to recognise that rural residents would get a better run into the city if some of their urban counterparts left their cars at home, so the option is rated badly for improving rural access.

Mode change is rejected on economic and “risk” arguments. You can almost hear the collective “Yeah, right” around the meeting table as members of the working party rolled their eyes and crossed off that option and moved on.

The council will go down the conventional “road” and spend roughly the same proportion of money and effort on alternatives to car use as it always has. One wonders how Dunedin of the early 20th century managed to exist as one of the fastest-growing urban economies in the world under the stranglehold of its state-of-the-art tram and cablecar system, and with hardly any cars.

Is there really no alternative? Must we always look to Los Angeles as our model for how to get about? That might not be such a bad idea, actually. LA has a new and growing light rail and subway network, indicating that the city has moved on from predict-and-provide road building.

But such modes of mass-transport are a bit beyond Dunedin’s reach: let us look at what LA is doing with its buses. One of the metropolis’ smallest municipalities, the City of Commerce (we would call it a borough, and we would think of a nicer name than “Commerce”), was faced with abolishing buses, as they carried hardly any passengers.

It abolished the fares instead. Now, the buses have plenty of passengers, freeing up the short-distance circulation of locals looking for a place to park their car, and traffic from other suburbs is attracted to Commerce’s decongested shopping areas.

Inner-city “freebie” buses, such as Commerce’s, are not especially new — they have them in Perth, Melbourne (trams), Christchurch and even Invercargill — and a small inner suburb in a mega-city does not compare too well with Dunedin’s situation.

Let us consider Hasselt, a small Belgian city where eastern Flanders’ border meets Germany and the Netherlands. Hasselt has a population of 70,000, and has Europe’s largest traditional Japanese garden, built jointly with its Japanese sister-city (sound familiar?).

The Hasselt City Council was faced with a citywide roadbuilding programme that included removing the remaining ancient trees down the city’s “Green Avenue”, a leafy ring-road near the centre rather like Bealey Ave in Christchurch.

Hasselt had a stagnating bus network typical of most small cities, with hardly any passengers. As a lastditch experiment just before commencing the roading programme, the council waived bus fares. The following day, 100 more passengers used buses; the day after that, 1000 more; the day after that, 1500 more.

Nine years later, the city has had a 1265% increase in bus use, even on its miserly bus timetable of two services an hour on most routes.

The Green Avenue was not only left intact, but further narrowed. Now, it is easier than ever to find a park in the central area. Interestingly, through those nine years, there has been no reduction in household car ownership; the citizens just use them less.

People still crave the freedom a car brings, and a great part of that freedom is the ability to drive along a public road whenever you feel like it without some guy in a uniform demanding a small fee from you as you back out of your driveway.

It was the similar freedom to leap on and off buses at will that was the master stroke for Hasselt’s citizens. Like motorists have always done, they preferred to pay for the upkeep of the transport network with their taxes. Many were still motorists anyway, appreciating the extra elbow room on the roads on the odd occasion when they needed to take the car.

Many new bus passengers were excyclists and ex-walkers — annoyingly, this would have been seen as a policy failure by some. The Hasselt council adopted a novel approach here too: it set up a fleet of public bikes for casual borrowing.

Discouraging car use by being generous with bus travel is a much nicer idea than giving motorists a jolly good spanking whenever they hop behind the wheel, with such things as carbon taxes or congestion and parking levies. Zero-fare bus travel is in keeping with the way most municipal services, including footpaths, parks and museums are funded and provided.

Empty buses cost as much to run as full ones, so the fare becomes a toll or a tax on passengers. If buses were always full, each passenger would only need to pay about 9c a kilometre, and by not collecting that on the bus, the service can run much faster as passengers pile in and the bus moves off right away.

The Otago Regional Council’s bus contractors are paid about $1.85 million and collect about $1.5 million in fares each year. This is the amount by which they would need their contracts increased from ratepayers’ funds. Put another way, the cost of widening the Caversham motorway would provide up to 16 years of free bus travel.

The $60 million cost of 1800 additional parking spaces the DCC would like to provide in Central Dunedin would, if invested as I have suggested, provide bus travel for all, forever.

  •     Dunedin reader Peter Dowden was a transport worker, whose activities included bus driving, in Melbourne, Dunedin and Japan for 14 years.