Thursday, 21 May 2009

Tree-hugging hippy nonsense

I fear this may categorise me as some kind of freaking liberal communist hippy nutter, but genuinely I'm curious: Why isn't public transport free? Or, more accurately, is there any good reason why public transport shouldn't be free?

The obvious one, to my mind, is that not everyone uses it, so why should everyone pay for it. Except, you know, I'm not convinced that's actually true. Say you drive everywhere, and never use public transport. Your roads are kept clear(er) just because there are lots of other people that aren't driving on them. You're in effect using public transport to keep your motorway nice and quiet. Another issue, I guess, is that you'd have to raise taxes and that would make a government unelectable. Well, to begin with, what you do in government seems to have little to do with how electable you are. Manifesto promises seem made to be broken - and once you're in power, until the next election you can do whatever you like. Maybe I'm being too cynical there. But the argument that you'd need to raise taxes and that would therefore make you unpopular... I'm not sure I buy that either. Obviously, yes, you'd raise taxes. But we already pay for public transport. Due to the hilarious, incompetent and spectacularly wasteful way our railways are run, we as a nation frequently subsidise private rail operators that have failed to perform. Whilst still paying big salaries to their directors and, in some cases, even managing to be profitable enough to pay their owners dividends. On top of that, which comes directly from our taxes, we pay to use public transport. Does it really matter whether we pay our money to the tax man or to the transport companies? It comes from the same source and goes to the same sink. The route is irrelevant.

I understand that it's a bit of an extreme position, and as such I should at least propose some benefits. So here goes:

The big one is that right now we have the issue that having a car - and using a car - are for most people the primary mode of transport. Because it's convenient, and because (tellingly) public transport is often too expensive. Now, we're funding public transport as a society anyway. The benefit of having a public transport system is that it's relatively efficient, keeps the roads relatively quiet, has less potential for the spectacular number of accidents and fatalities, and is massively more efficient in terms of maintenance to the user. There's clearly a social benefit to having a decent public transport system - you get more people to work on time, more reliably (yes yes, if it's working well), and you no longer force people to be dependent upon the constant outlay of having a car, maintaining a car, fuelling a car, driving a car, and not crashing a car.

Now I'm not saying that we should outlaw cars or anything crazy like that. They're really handy. I'm just saying that - like with the NHS - surely the base level of transport that we expect society to have (because society relies on it) should be covered by the society as a whole. And once you take that step, why charge for it? Make it free at point of use, and you'll see usage increase. You have to pay for that, but what comes out of your taxes is no longer coming out of your pay packet when you want to go somewhere. You can keep paid upgrades to first class, that's fine. And if you really want to drive, you can pay extra and do that too.

But just because you want to drive a shiny car, that doesn't abrogate you of the responsibility to pay your social debt and fund the base level of transport. You're chosing to use something beyond the basics that society requires, so you should pay for that in addition to the basics, not instead of.

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