The bottom-line cost to the ACT government should be minimal over ten years. There will be some up-front capital cost for larger or additional ACTION buses, to cope with increased patronage, and possibly some redeployment costs for redundant ACTION staff. These up-front capital costs would be much less than the capital cost of a light-rail service and other planned road improvements. ACTION's operating subsidy may need a small increase. However, the bottom-line for the ACT community as a whole would be a real saving.
Only about 20% of ACTION's gross revenue comes from fares (see ACTION's Annual Reports) and a large proportion of this is spent collecting the fares. Taxpayers already contribute about $1m a week to support ACTION. I therefore propose that the payment of all bus fares be eliminated, making public transport fare-free for users. Economists argue that this will result in overuse but the many advantages of this proposal include:
- Bus services will operate faster point-to-point and will be on time, because stops (dwell time) would be only momentary (with no time lost in fare collection) and because all doors can be used for entry and exit at every stop. These improvements have been demonstrated in places like inner-Perth, London, Zurich and Geneva, where tickets are not sold onboard the buses.
- Safety will improve once the bus driver is not distracted by collecting fares and can give undivided attention to driving the bus.
- Drivers can be more physically isolated from the passengers, making bus driving a safer and more attractive occupation, particularly at night. In addition, with no cash on board, there would be no motive for robbery.
- ACTION staffing flexibility and efficiency improves once drivers can changeover at any point on the network – once again, because they are not carrying cash.
- Potential passengers could no longer (incorrectly) argue that driving to work costs them about the same as catching the bus. Many families would no longer need a second car, a huge saving.
- There would be substantial ACTION operating economies without tickets, student passes, ticket validation machines, ticket inspectors, sales outlet commissions, most of ACTION's accounting staff, armoured car services, driver lost time for cash counting and reconciliation, etc. As a result, the ACT government's current subsidy, of $1m a week, should be sufficient to operate the new "free" service at the present patronage level.
- Increased patronage would eliminate the need to build more capacity into our road network for at least ten years. These savings would pay for a larger ACTION bus fleet and the retraining of surplus staff to accommodate the increase in passengers.
- There would be no need to build new public car parking for about ten years.
- Commercial and other vehicles would be less delayed by traffic congestion, reducing their operating costs.
- Future bus driver recruits would not need to be trained to handle cash and need not be paid a premium pay rate for this task. This simplified workload would attract more applicants for bus driver jobs.
- On trunk routes, the resulting high frequency of buses would make timetables unnecessary, a strategy which has been found in Toronto to greatly increase patronage. The reduced cost of timetables and their associated staffing would be another saving. On trunk routes buses could turn short, jump stops and use other flexibility measures.
- All road vehicle accident and injury rates would decrease, reducing insurance rates, a saving to everyone.
- By running the buses on CNG instead of diesel (already a recommendation of the ACT Greenhouse Strategy) many more people will travel using this low environmental impact fuel.
- The overall reduction in vehicle exhaust pollution would assist our compliance with the Kyoto Convention and also alleviate the smog problem in Tuggeranong valley.
- Increase public transport usage will improve the social fabric of Canberra as people meet each other on the buses.
- This strategy would greatly assist Canberra to meet the Canberra 2020 Summit target of 50% of travel trips by other than private vehicle by 2020.
Opposition can be expected from petrol companies, motor manufacturers, tyre makers, road builders and other lobby groups with a vested interest in increasing our reliance on our cars.
Some taxpayers may argue they are being forced to pay for something they don't use, however, if they must still use a car they will benefit from the lowered road traffic congestion.
Overuse could be adjusted by making peak-hour bus stops at least half a kilometre apart, with closer spaced, intervening off-peak stops to facilitate access by those with a disability. More bus lanes would be easy to implement once we have lowered congestion. Both of these measures would further speed up peak-hour services.
Light-rail is very expensive to install and inflexible for a place like Canberra. It cannot provide express peak-hour services and if a light-rail vehicle breaks down, it blocks the route. Light-rail really needs its own right-of-way to work successfully. We already have a road infrastructure well suited to buses. A light-rail between Gungahlin and Civic would need either a massive annual operating subsidy or very high fares, as exemplified by the privatised light-rail service in inner Sydney, operating in a much higher population density than Canberra.
This is a great opportunity for Canberra to show the world what can be done in a homogeneous planned environment, with a well-educated population, willing to try such an exciting experiment. Canberra would certainly attract world media and professional transport experts' attention.
Remember how successful "zero-fare" public transport was for the Sydney Olympics and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games!
Chris Emery, retired Professional Engineer, Reid 2612 [pdf]