Debates about making public transport free seem particularly hamstrung by a few sometimes understandable and sometimes slightly mean-spirited and inaccurate objections that have a decidedly neoliberal flavour. Here are the top four contenders, unpacked:
- People don’t appreciate free stuff, and they will trash it. Perhaps tell that to all the people who enjoy (and on the whole don’t trash) our free libraries and parks. In fact the evidence suggests the opposite: making things free actually gives them a “premium” that increases their attractiveness over and above the cost savings involved.
- Public transport provides both a public and a private benefit so it should always attract “part charges”. This is really only true for middle-class and high-income people. For low-income people, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that it’s a social good, and treating it like a market good at all is creating situations where lower income New Zealanders are having to trade off food and transport costs.
- If we make public transport free, then buses and trains will become “mobile community centres”, and vandalism and antisocial behaviour will increase. Drivers shouldn’t have to deal with this. There is a little bit of evidence to support this. But I would argue that it is the same stuff that our free libraries have to deal with, and they don’t deal with it by introducing entry charges to keep people out who might have nowhere else to go or might have drug or addiction issues. This is, of course, yet another argument for dealing with homelessness, which now affects 1 in 100 people in Aotearoa. It is not a compelling argument for part charges on public transport.
- We can spend the money on removing part charges on public transport (for some or everyone), or we can spend it on improving public transport frequency and quality: pick one. You can have hospitals, or you can have drugs to put in them: pick one. Come on, in one of the richest countries in the world, this is really an argument?
So, deciding to remove part charges on public transport (for some or everyone) as a carbon-emission-reduction strategy might require both a degree of comfort with acting before all the evidence is in and a commitment to tweak and experiment – because urgency might trump perfect empirical resolution. Such a move, however, would be guaranteed to reduce the misery of transport poverty in Aotearoa.