The Sunday Age's piece by William Birnbauer 'From Clear Roads to Gridlock: What's the lesson, Mr Bracks', argues that the low road traffic congestion experienced during the 11 days of free public transport during the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne gives a 'real world experiment for the future' supporting proposals to make public transport free. In my view it does no such thing.
Birnbauer notes traffic volumes were lower than expected during the 'Games and that the usual peak-traffic problems disappeared. Free transport, he noted, was consistent with a Sunday Age poll finding 88% support for the proposal. With actual public transport subsidies around $1 billion the extra costs of making it completely free, he claimed, would be an extra $340 million which could be met by a congestion tax, a Medicare-style levy or a levy on rates.
Whatever the claims are for free public transport, the experience during the 'Games is irrelevant in predicting future public transport demands with free provision. (i) people were actively discouraged from taking their car during the games by widespread warnings of potential long delays and extreme congestion; (ii) journeys to the games themselves were atypical and made, in considerable numbers, by visitors to the city, and, (iii) the 'triple convergence' that might be expected to create new actual demands for car travel from latent demands could scarcely be expected to arise over such a short-period. Long-term, the response of commuters in initiating new travel demands would be higher.
The details of the claimed extra costs of only $340 million also should be spelt out. Whatever the final public travel demand increase is, it must be met by increased costly bus and train services. Most of Melbourne's public system is radially directed towards the centre of the city so making transport free would disadvantage those living in the city's periphery who would continue to have poor access to public transport but would face extra costs of meeting the transport needs of those who do travel radially and who are currently well-serviced. The policy is both inefficient and inequitable.
We need effective congestion pricing in Melbourne and public transport which is priced efficiently at marginal cost but not given away free.