What’s the right bus fare?

27/03/2012 § 1 Comment

Wellington’s transit system has announced new fare increases. This is causing the expected complaints. The last fare increase was just in November, so riders still remember it. Plus, the way that cash fares are calculated is leading to fifty-cent rises on some routes.

I commute by bus. I wish it were better, but I’m not willing to pay more absent some quality guarantees. If I had to pay much more, then I would take my car. Wellington mass transit is such a dreary, second-best solution. Add in one of our occasional gale-force storms, and it becomes miserable.

It is, in part, a problem of allocating resources. Road space is a scarce resource, especially at rush hour. We currently allocate it with congestion rather than prices.

Then we overlay a public transportation system without really clear goals. The article about the fare increases makes the thinking clear. It is focused on costs: the cost to run the system, the artificial split in costs between fares and council subsidies. There is no discussion of the benefits. What are the benefits of having more people on public transit? Less congestion, less pollution, lower fuel use, etc.

I’d like to see a better articulation of what the public transit system is trying to accomplish. Something like:

Travel time is a cost we would like to reduce. We would like to achieve average commute speeds of X km/hr in the greater Wellington area. To do that, the maximum capacity of the arterial routes is Y. This entails having S thousands of commuters on buses and rail, while T thousands commute by private modes. We are setting the transit fare so as to attract S thousand commuters.

Instead of focusing on what we are trying to achieve with the system, they are focused on how to pay for it. From the article:

“Given that patronage is not increasing … the only way fare revenue can increase is through a fare increase.”┬áThe report also warned that patronage may drop off because of the increase, “however patronage is steady and seems to have been relatively unaffected by the past fare increases”.

I know I’m biased, but how about this plan: free bus fare and congestion pricing for private vehicles.

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§ One Response to What’s the right bus fare?

  • Doesn’t it make more sense to have congestion charging on all vehicles scaled by the amount of congestion they impose? An individual bus is more inconvenient for other drivers than an individual car because of the frequent stops, sometimes in places where other cars back up behind it. But, per passenger, the congestion charge would wind up very low relative to per car passenger.

    Maybe you can make a second-best case for zero-rating buses if we can’t charge full congestion pricing on cars. But why not start with the first best case instead?

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