Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Free rides bound to come at a cost

If you think public transport services are bad now, just wait until no one's paying for the pleasure

John Minto's promise of free buses and trains avoids the fact that, in the end, someone has to pick up the bill. Photo / Brett Phibbs
John Minto's promise of free buses and trains avoids the fact that, in the end, someone has to pick up the bill. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As election bribes go, Auckland mayoral hopeful John Minto's promise of free public transport in "less than a year" has certainly set the bar high for his opponents to match. Now all he has to do is persuade Aucklanders he wasn't partaking of party pills when he came up with this solution to our traffic woes.

He does point to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which introduced such a scheme in January of this year, but fails to mention that the Prime Minister of this small Baltic state is demanding the experiment end.

"Free transport does not exist," said Prime Minister Andrus Ansip. "The taxpayer still pays for public transport which the customer then receives for free."

I could imagine Prime Minister John Key saying exactly the same thing.

Of course, Mr Minto could always call on the backing of multi-billionaire financier Michael Bloomberg, New York Mayor since 2002, who supports - in theory at least - funding mass transit by squeezing motorists.

"I would have mass transit be given away for nothing and charge an awful lot for bringing an automobile into the city," he told the Daily News in 2007.

Fortuitously for Mayor Bloomberg and a future Mayor Minto, neither has the power to indulge his vision. In Mr Minto's case, that could be a good thing for all of us. Reading his policy launch speech, I certainly doubt I'd last the pace. He promises that in "less than a year" he'd have a fleet of "modern, low-emission trains and buses, fitted with free Wi-Fi" providing "free and frequent travel along transport corridors to all parts of the Auckland City urban area".

Auckland will be "moving like never before. People will abandon their cars and enjoy faster travel", merrily checking their emails and surfing the internet along the way.

He says it will be cost-free to ratepayers, because half the $10 billion currently destined for new roading over the next decade won't be needed and could go to subsidising the buses and trains instead.

What Mr Minto doesn't seem to appreciate is that the cost of his "free ride" promise is only about half the $280 million he states. That's the present annual cost of Auckland public transport. But what he's missed is that 57 per cent of that cost is recovered through subsidies from ratepayers and road-user charges.

Not that that will exactly help his case with the Government, which is determined that far from upping that subsidy to 100 per cent, it be reduced to 50 per cent. Oh yes, and it wants to build more roads.

Before the recent fare rise, Auckland rail fares covered only 26 per cent of the cost of running the service, so were 74 per cent "free" anyway. Buses were rather better, passengers paying for around 48 per cent of costs.

Even if Mayor Minto could persuade the Government to hand over half the motorway building budget, it's still a giant leap of faith to imagine commuters jumping from their cars to catch a free bus or train in order to gain "an extra hour at home every work day" by escaping the old gridlock. All within a year.

Auckland transport planners agree mass transit is a "price-sensitive" business and that when petrol prices go up, there is an increase in bus and rail passengers. But similarly, when it rains, or it gets cold, there's a flow back to the car.

The question for Mr Minto is, what evidence is there that after Aucklanders initially "flock" to the free public transport, they won't prove just as fickle when the novelty of a free bus or train ride wears off. That's for those lucky enough to get aboard, for the dream of an instant revolution is surely just that.

He advocates the need for a new coherent, unified network across all parts of the city. Consultation for just such a network is currently under way. But what is also needed is a network of dedicated busways to ensure the extra buses - he plans to double the existing fleet over three years - will not get gridlocked.

I'm a user of public transport. I don't mind paying for it. What puts me and others off public transport is not so much the cost, but bad, inadequate or non-existent service.

It's hard enough getting improvements to the system as a paying passenger - admittedly, a subsidised one - but I fear my chances would be zero on a free service.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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