Free fares: two charts

Free PT continues to distract from the actual reasons people don’t use the system

Free public transport has come up yet again recently, in an ABC online article (with a weirdly incorrect infographic), a segment on 3AW, and another on The Project.

And this morning the Queensland government has announced almost free fares – 50 cents – for six months from August. (Not entirely coincidentally there’s a state election in October.)

In Australia, free or almost free often sounds great to current users, who may not realise just how poorly public transport serves most other people.

Rather than talk again at length about the nuances of free fares, let me sum up my view in two charts, documenting two things:

  • Most people don’t use PT regularly
  • The reasons they don’t use it are mostly about service, not fares

This means most people don’t benefit, and the assumption that it’ll get lots of people out of cars isn’t correct.

How many people use PT?

This data shows how people got to work in Greater Melbourne on Census Day 2016:

Main method of travel to work (Greater Melbourne, 2016 Census)

(The 2021 Census is not representative because it was in the middle of a pandemic lockdown.)

When it comes to public transport advocacy, my firm view is that the focus should be on getting more people out of cars onto public transport.

Some current PT users would like free rides. Fair enough, but I don’t view that as the priority. Focus on the people who don’t currently use PT. There’s so many of them.

Why don’t people use PT?

So why don’t people use public transport? This ABS data tells us:

Victoria Reasons for not using public transport (ABS)

For people who are not using PT, cost considerations was one of the least-cited reasons, at 1.9%.

Most people aren’t using it because of service quality – almost 80% depending on precisely which reasons you include in that category.

It’s the same for our friends in Queensland.

Don’t get me wrong: the current fare structure isn’t perfect. The nearly flat fares mean that short journeys are expensive.

And PT needs to be affordable for everybody, especially to those on limited incomes. This can be helped with wider concessions or deeper discounts or even free fares targeted at those who need them – as well as ensuring people know about them.

But free (or near-free) rides for everybody? That’s a massive subsidy for current users, at a massive cost, and a meaningless gesture for many others who have no usable service.

Fare cuts have become a distraction from fixing the actual problems that are preventing more people using public transport.

Just in Victoria in the past 10 years we’ve seen metro flat fares, the Free Tram Zone, and V/Line fare cuts… Some of these were justified, but meanwhile service kilometres per person are flat.

Bus timetable at Moorabbin station

To put it another way

Still reading? Jarrett Walker is one of the world’s foremost public transport experts, and is interviewed in this new podcast. From about 49 minutes in he tackles the topic of free fares:

We have seen over and over… studies, surveys, but also revealed evidence, that ridership responds much more to service than it does to fares, and that quality service is the thing that makes the difference.

He talks about how free fares can work in rural areas and small towns (especially university towns), but not in big cities:

In big cities, there’s no way to do it (free public transport). Even in Europe, no one really does it … There was the big experiment in Tallin, Estonia, which found very little benefit in terms of actually shifting people out of cars.

I understand why it’s popular, because it’s easy to explain. And service is hard to explain… But ultimately, service matters more than fares.

I also think, by the way, that it makes good sense to have low income discounts, so that people who are more sensitive to cost pay less. … but I think that simply putting forward free fares as a solution to anything in big city systems is just not going to work in the context of how our big cities work and how our transit agencies are funded.

More reading: My last blog on free fares, and another recent post showing that to save households transport costs, you have to reduce car use and ownership

Apart from media coverage in the past couple of weeks, this topic also got a lengthy airing on ABC radio last month.

Update following discussion on social media: The ABS survey on reasons for not using PT is pretty good, but it’s not perfect. A key failing is it’s measuring responses for journeys to work and study, so my assumption is it doesn’t capture people who didn’t travel to either of these, which may mean it misses some people on low incomes whose response might have been Cost.

Update: Audio from this morning’s segment on 3AW is here

One more update 29/5/2024: There’s some good stuff here from BITRE on who uses public transport. High income groups are more likely to use it, especially for trips to work, and especially trains. Well worth a read.

3AW did another segment on this on Monday – it’s here.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.

18 replies on “Free fares: two charts”

Making it slower and more inconvenient to use cars would work better than lowering fares. Instead, we spend billions on road infrastructure to make it faster (in the short term)

Free public transport is, alas, the meretricious first resort of populists: no obvious cost, easy to understand, hard to reverse. It’s the sort of rubbish the Greens would spruik.

Rather than ending up with the tragedy of the commons that is Melbourne’s free tram zone, we really need a fair but rigidly enforced fare structure than alleviates the cost of providing high levels of frequent, reliable services. I’d happily pay $200 a month for trains, buses and trams that were fast, frequent, punctual and useful.

Mike, I disagree. Making car travel slow and inconvenient just worsens outcomes for everybody. There will always be a place for private vehicles. Let’s elevate public transport such that it’s an attractive option in its own right.

Mike, I disagree but I think we should not be building no any new road infrastructure and instead invest in new public transport and higher frequency turn up and go services. Building roads just induces more cars on the roads that makes it worse to commute by car. We need to take more cars off the road by improving public transport and making it better than car transport rather than making car transport worse.

You only have to look at England that must have the most complicated fare structure and expensive fares in the world, yet still public transport usage is very high…too high at times. I don’t suggest our fares should be absurdly high but high enough to be meaningful. $10+ might be ok for Geelong, but to very distant places regions that receive a reasonable service, it is too cheap.

So how do you account for the patronage increase seen in Perth during its free public transport trial at the beginning of the year?

A number of existing commuters will benefit from free fares, especially those forgotten families that don’t meet the threshold for health care cards, but still struggling to make ends meet.
In my experience people don’t use PT because they don’t feel safe enough or it doesn’t take them to where they need to go in a timely manner. Making the system ticketless will only make the first issue worse- having to pay to use the system, discourages antisocial types from using it – many US systems, like NYC have a token amount to use PT, which keeps the system a little safer than it might perhaps be – an ID card to enter with free ticketing would be ideal.
The only solution to the second problem is strategic planning and investment, supposedly the high speed signalling will bring us to a glorious future of quick and reliable train travel, but I have my doubts – instead, a driverless, seperated from roads and pedestrians network like an organically interwoven series of Suburban Rail Loops, could fulfil that, hopefully the SRL will be a demonstration of what is possible.

@Cygnus, I haven’t seen details of what happened in Perth, but I would expect a patronage rise on the usable services. In Melbourne, that’s the train and tram networks, and a handful of bus routes. This will be the areas of the urban area where public transport already has a reasonable market share.

What you’re less likely to see is PT patronage or mode share increase markedly in the areas with insufficient services, and where car driving dominates. In Melbourne, this is most trips to/from/around the middle and outer suburbs.

But it’s those areas that should be the priority for getting more people out of cars, and where there’s the biggest scope for help with household transport costs. The hourly buses won’t do it, not even if they’re free.

To be fair, I don’t think the Queensland 50c fares for 6 months is not being sold as a way of getting people out of cars. But rather as a way to give a bit of cost of living relief for those that use public transport in SEQ given the cost of living crisis. However, and rightly so, complaints are coming from those who don’t/can’t use public transport, as well as the vast majority of Queensland outside of SEQ, who will see no benefit from this at all, yet will still be paid for from their tax dollars.

I agree with you on the point of more regular service is the bigger factor in drawing more users. As a bus user living alongside the Eastern Freeway Corridor, the increase in bus services, along with addition of Bus Lanes are the main reasons for leaving the car at home.

Re Perth, boardings in August to December 2023 were 2-3% higher than the same period in 2017 (using that year as a baseline because the days of the week align perfectly). January 2024, i.e. the free month, was 5% higher than January 2018. So free transport only made a small difference.

Yes there are press reports of a 40% increase in Smartrider boardings – but a) most of that was also observed in other months – Airport line, pandemic recovery etc and b) it would be offset by a decrease in paper tickets, at that time of year especially the family pass

I think comparing Melbourne to Perth is like comparing apples to oranges, and that is because Perth is a lot smaller than Melbourne (nearly two million for the former and four million for the latter). I feel that we need to improve public transport to get people out of their cars (having buses every 40 to 60 minutes, even during peak) will not get people out of cars, even with cheaper fares. It may not be popular, but we need to go back to the zonal system that was used prior to the move towards flat fares, especially going to regional areas, and areas beyond the commuter belt (like Swan Hill, Ararat, Shepperton, etc.). It is the frequency that will get people out of cars, not cost of fares, especially when there are no feasible options other than cars.

And as a film extra, I often have to go to areas where there is no public transport (either I have to start too early to get the first train), so even though there should be more public transport, there is a need for cars to get to areas where public transport is insufficient (like many regional areas). And if you need a car to get to certain areas, you don’t need a large car, a small car will be sufficient enough.

Slightly off-topic but I was just in Brisbane a couple weeks ago and one of the things I have to envy there is that along many of their main bus corridors, the buses can seem to run with a headway of about 5 or 10 minutes and at the worst, about 15 minutes on their BUZ routes.

Some people cited examples of how it would be too labour intensive to maintain such frequencies but we already do that with trams here. I wonder why we can’t run such frequencies here in Melbourne on buses in areas where trams and trains are not accessible?

Also to a certain degree, I agree on Mike’s points above. It seems governments have no qualms on building expensive road megaprojects and the subsequent costs of maintaining them but are less likely to do so for PT projects, especially the non-glamorous but beneficial work of making slight improvements to make PT better.

Also to relieve the cost of living pressures, perhaps concession fares can be expanded. In addition to current concessions, those on lower incomes should be entitled to half fare concessions, and those with higher needs and very low or no income should have access to a fare card with free fares.

I think the second graph was from 2016 census too which predated the regional flat fare structure introduction. I reckon it’s now a bit different. Fares are now a bigger issue.

Problem is the flat fares across the state. Costs me $5.30 to take a train a couple of stations or a bus a few stops in Melbourne. Same fare as for someone travelling from Traralgon to Melbourne. The incentive has been utterly removed to leave the car behind as short trips are just too expensive now city folk are subsidising regional rail travel. So why bother?

The Victorian government need to make short trips cheaper to make them fair. Then more people will use PT. just watch. Also no mention of the 15% hike in metro fares over 7 months from June 23 to January 24. Sure as heck beat any inflation I knew over that time. Victorians were taken for a ride by the government, it’s just gotten more and more expensive to take PT. It’s up to them to make a change. They haven’t yet, or won’t. It’s a shame. Nothing will change til they fix the fare structure.

There are two very different issues at stake and it’s important not to confuse them:
1) how to shift people away from cars to active and public transport; and
2) whether public services should be free to use.
In terms of mode shift, people will use services that are useful, safe, convenient and a pleasure to use. How to achieve higher rates of usage of public and active transport is a technical question, albeit dogged by politics and vested interests in whether and what improvements can be made.
Whether people should pay to use public services and how much they should pay to use them, given that in many instances what they pay will not cover the costs of provision, is an entirely political question. Currently, most drivers, cyclists or pedestrians do not pay directly to use the ground required for their mobility. The idea that drivers, who benefit most from the public expenditure on the road system, even though their usage creates the need for expenditure on maintenance (biking and walking do not create much wear and tear by comparison), might pay more directly has met with enormous resistance. Yet the same people are required to pay to travel on publicly-funded PT, creating an illusion that somehow a different set of values is at work.

When political parties offer up reductions or removal of fares, is it more effective for advocates to go ‘no! make the system better’ or to say ‘Sure! And can we also have a better system, too?’

Lets not argue over paying to use a marginal mode of transport, lets advocate drivers start paying directly for the majority mode!

@Fare’s Fair, the recent rises have been in line with CPI, which has been quite high. One question worth pondering is whether they should be pegged to CPI, or pegged to wage growth. (See the recent changes to HECS/HELP debts.)

See this blog post from December regarding recent increases – the short answer is that above-CPI rises last decade mean we’re paying well above what we should be for the base fare.

@Ian, that’s a really great way of putting it. Yes, they are separate issues.

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