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Why the government can’t blame us (yet) for clinging to our cars

30 May 2019
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Dr Mark Raadsen explores the reasons why personal car ownership and usage is still favoured over public transportation in Australia.

We all know that, in an urban environment, having multiple cars – or even one car - per household is likely going to become an unsustainable proposition in the future. At the same time, we all like to believe that the solution to this is that our neighbour gives up their car(s) so that we don’t have to. People are inherently selfish creatures and it is in our nature to prioritise our own needs over someone else’s.  We can of course hope that we change our ways and miraculously give up our vehicular pride and joy even though no one else in our street does but I hope you agree this is unlikely to happen out of the blue.

In Sydney, public transport is comparatively cheap compared to many European countries, so there is little opportunity to increase patronage (and get vehicles of the roads) via cheaper ticketing. Another reason not to go down this route is the fact that the quality and experience of the public transport system will become even more of an issue due to the lack of cost recovery which is at a worryingly low level as it stands. Ideally, we would significantly increase the ticket price, improve the quality of the experience, and increase patronage. But how to achieve this without having to face issues like social exclusion due to the ever-increasing sprawl of our city?

Of course, there is no silver bullet here, but taking inspiration from purposely developed schemes around the globe there exist some success stories that could contribute to a larger uptake of public transport without penalising commuters who do not have the means to live close to their workplace.

Before we go there however, I want to mention a personal experience I had on public transport in NSW. When I first moved to Sydney from the Netherlands (quite some time ago), I did the touristy thing and visited the Blue Mountains, Newcastle, and other places that were easy to reach by train. I was amazed that the 6-hour round trip to Newcastle would cost me roughly the same as 3-4 barista made coffees. The same goes for the very scenic route through the Blue Mountains. I personally think that I (as a tourist at that stage) should have paid at least triple the amount for the service that I got. Yet, as a commuter I think the costing structure as it currently stands does make sense.

It seems only logical to differentiate between the type of traveller to achieve the goal of making the transport system available to those who need it and making it less available for those who don’t, achieving this is no rocket science. For example, when I was still working overseas (northern Europe), I’d commute every day between two cities on a 45-minute train trip. Being a commuter, my employer would – due to legislation – have to reimburse me for the cost. But hold on, they would only pay each employee the cheapest public transit fare, which is a severely discounted fare for taking up a monthly/yearly ticket on that employee’s particular route. These two elements: (i) special low fares for regular commuters , (ii) employers contributing to the commute but only for this discounted fare, resulted in the situation that for most people, it became economically unattractive to commute by car, ensured higher patronage of the public transport system, and also allowed for a higher cost recovery, since tourists and incidental travellers pay a much higher ticket price than this discounted commuter fare. This in turn, allows for higher quality experiences. Free Wi-Fi on the trains, digital screens indicating where to transfer, money-back arrangements in case of delays, etc.

So, when starting to work in Australia – in my naivety – I quickly glanced at my secondary benefits only to find out - to my bewilderment - that not public transport but car usage is being incentivised. We do not get any compensation for using public transport. Instead, I am only able to salary package my car, which is only beneficial when I drive more than a certain amount of kilometres. In other words, there exists a perverse incentive to drive as much as I can in my car to get a better deal out of my benefits.

As a conclusion, I would therefore urge policy makers to stop alluding to the goodness of our hearts in order to create a sustainable future, but instead look at practical, pragmatic, and existing legislative measures that would promote sustainable transport. I understand that this is not as sexy an idea as promoting driverless electric vehicles, but contrary to the latter, it is a directly feasible one and has proven itself in other parts of our beautiful planet. These measures can avoid social exclusion (in case of unemployment similar benefits could be made available), improve cost recovery, and improve patronage, all at the same time. Oh wait, that does sound like a silver bullet after all.