free bus fares – too good to be true?

By: Sean Mortell


The Tasmanian state government recently made bus fares free for a five-week period to ease the cost of transport. But is it as beneficial to Australians as it sounds?

free bus fares – too good  to be true?
Tasmania has recently trialed free bus journeys

The recent fuel price increase has lumped on even more misery to the cost of living for Australian citizens. While recent federal budget announcements have provided some temporary relief, the Tasmanian state government has taken matters into its own hands by announcing earlier this year that it would make bus fares free for five weeks.

But is this move as beneficial as it sounds?

Tasmania’s state government and metro service think so. One week into the initiative, statistics from the office of Tasmanian Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Michael Ferguson suggested that people are taking advantage of the five-week free ride, with a passenger increase of 13 per cent, or 4,300 passengers a day, state-wide. 

"It is an early, yet clear, demonstration that our plan for free buses to help ease household budget stresses is working, as people look for a money-saving alternative to driving," Ferguson said.

The benefits of free fares for Tasmanians are numerous. In theory, there would be fewer cars on the road each day, easing congestion and reducing carbon emissions. More people will also save money by hopping on the bus daily and catching a free ride to work. 

Metro Tasmania says there is a massive upside to making public transport free for a stretch of time.

"It’s a great opportunity to encourage people who don’t regularly use public transport to try it, or for infrequent users to become more regular," Metro Tasmania CEO Katie Cooper told ABC magazine.

Metro Tasmania CEO Katie Cooper

"The bigger benefit with public transport is it provides an easy way to benefit the customer as they don’t have to pay parking fees and they avoid the stress of driving through peak hour. Instead, they can just sit back, relax and enjoy an easy ride home."

On top of these practical advantages, Cooper believes there’s further physical health benefits to getting out of the car and catching the bus with other people.

"People get an extra 30 minutes’ incidental exercise a day, which is a fantastic health benefit," Cooper said. 

"Couple that with the sustainability factor, as there are fewer cars on the road and therefore fewer emissions, and it’s no surprise how good free public transport can be."

Cooper said the positivity surrounding public transport since the announcement has been noticeable. Normally a standard part of urban life, Cooper has noticed catching the bus being "talked about as a genuine and real service to help people live their lives".

She’s hopeful that this five-week stretch could be instrumental in seeing public transport become an even more publicly promoted topic for Tasmanian people.

But the Metro Tasmania CEO admitted there are challenges associated with launching the trial initiative in what is still a pandemic, with the impact that Covid-19 can have on consistent daily services still as pertinent as ever.

"One unfortunate aspect of this first week of the initiative is we’ve been impacted with Covid and have had to drop a number of services due to staff absences," Cooper said. 

"It’s had an impact on the service we’re operating as it’s unfortunate timing. Hopefully it’ll settle down in the coming weeks and we can get back to operating at 100 per cent during the free period."

minutes’ incidental exercise a day, which is a fantastic health benefit," Cooper said. 

"Couple that with the sustainability factor, as there are fewer cars on the road and therefore fewer emissions, and it’s no surprise how good free public transport can be."

Metro have recognised challenges for the public transport network post covid

Cooper said the positivity surrounding public transport since the announcement has been noticeable. Normally a standard part of urban life, Cooper has noticed catching the bus being "talked about as a genuine and real service to help people live their lives".

She’s hopeful that this five-week stretch could be instrumental in seeing public transport become an even more publicly promoted topic for Tasmanian people.

But the Metro Tasmania CEO admitted there are challenges associated with launching the trial initiative in what is still a pandemic, with the impact that Covid-19 can have on consistent daily services still as pertinent as ever.

"One unfortunate aspect of this first week of the initiative
is we’ve been impacted with Covid and have had to drop
a number of services due to
staff absences," Cooper said. 

"It’s had an impact on the service we’re operating as it’s unfortunate timing. Hopefully it’ll settle down in the coming weeks and we can get back to operating at 100 per cent during the free period."

THE OTHER SIDE

Not everyone, however, is a fan of free public transport. 

Professor Jago Dodson is the director of Melbourne’s RMIT Centre for Urban Research and an expert in urban infrastructure. He doesn’t see the immediate bonuses of relieving the cost of living by making bus fares free as a beneficial long-term prospect for Australian states.

"It’s understandable that there are these calls in times of high demands and high transport cost pressures on households," Dodson told ABC. 

"From a state government perspective, there aren’t tools available to respond in short- term ways because they don’t control the fuel excise tax or economic support policies. The question I have is who benefits the most from free public transport?"

Professor Jago Dodson, director of Melbourne’s RMIT centre for urban research

Dodson argues that public transport infrastructure is of the highest quality in the inner and middle suburban areas of major Australian cities, while it decreases in quality in fringe suburban regions. 

"When looking at the distribution of wealth, those households in the middle to inner suburban areas who have access to the highest quality public transport are the ones receiving the free bus fares when they don’t necessarily need the discount.

"Free public transport disproportionately benefits wealthier households than those on lower incomes," Dodson said. 

"Even if the measure is temporary, it won’t be particularly useful except for very low-income households where dropping the cost of a bus fare is actually going to be of benefit to them, but in general it won’t benefit most households.

"What we need the federal government to assist with is a reduction in the fuel excise, although even that is problematic. 

"It’s much better to provide relief on the income side of the equation to cover these rising costs so households can choose if they spend this extra money on fuel, food, clothes or other expenses."

Dodson feels for state governments, as he says the current cost of living problem is a "short-term shock" while the planning process for improving public transport so it is equitable for people of all socio-economic backgrounds takes more than a decade. 

Although he agrees with Cooper that Australia needs to shift away from fuel vehicles as primary means of transport to more sustainable modes, Dodson has a different solution to free bus fares that makes it fairer for everyone.

"We need to take this as the most recent lesson that if we manage cities where 80 per cent of travel is by automobiles running on insecure fuel supplies, then we set ourselves up for consistent difficulties," Dodson said. 

"This sounds counterintuitive, but a question to ask is whether the fuel tax is too low in Australia, as it allows people to remain car-dependent at a relatively low cost compared to other countries.

"If you have ongoing high fuel taxation, then it sends a price taxation message for people to walk, cycle or catch public transport, meaning we have more money to build bike lanes and improve public transport infrastructure so it’s equitable for all people. 

"That also requires income support for less wealthy households so they are not disadvantaged."

POSITIVE FEEDBACK

Although not everyone is a fan of the Tasmanian government’s free bus fare decision, it won’t stop the state from continuing to enjoy the trial period.

"Encouragingly the feedback being received has been incredibly positive, especially from those trying the bus for the first time, or for the first time in a long time," Ferguson said.

"With the free public bus services continuing for another four weeks, we encourage anyone that thinks a bus will get them where they need to go and who wants to save money to jump on board – it’s free

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