We need better public transport, not free public transport

From time to time the topic of free public transport comes up, most recently because of changes in Estonia.

I think it’s a distraction from far more important issues.

I just wanted to address a few points about it. Apologies for the rambling.

Would it be a good idea in Melbourne and/or Victoria?

I don’t think so.

The first point is the cost: the PTV Annual Report indicates around $800 million is collected in fare revenue every year.

Even allowing for the running costs of the ticket system and fare enforcement, hundreds of millions of dollars would have to be found to cover that.

That’s money that wouldn’t be available for upgrades, which are a far higher priority, because the main reason people don’t use public transport isn’t the fares, it’s the service quality.

If the system goes free, assuming that at least some of the shortfall is via higher taxes, you’d have a lot of people paying more for a service they can’t practicably use, which brings me to the next point.

Free Tram Zone

Would free PT get more people on board?

Melbourne’s existing free public transport is an indicator of what would happen if the whole system was free.

The usable, frequent services would be swamped with people. They’d need upgrades to keep up with growth — upgrades which would be far more difficult if revenue isn’t growing with patronage growth. Example: the Free Tram Zone; free New Years Eve trains.

You’d also lose any peak/off-peak pricing mechanism that can moderate peak demand and help encourage off-peak travel. This is used heavily on V/Line (30% discount outside peak, and for all trips that don’t go through Zone 1), and also on Metro (100% discount before 7:15am on weekdays), though arguably this could be used more extensively.

The infrequent, less usable services — such as suburban buses — still wouldn’t get a lot of use. Example: Seniors and Myki Pass-holders on weekends. Some use the buses, but plenty would rather drive, even if they can use public transport for free (or for no extra cost with their weekday ticket).

And that’s a problem if one of the prime aims is to increase public transport usage. Those middle and outer suburban areas where most people travel day to day is where public transport is failing to win market share, thus driving dominates. It would continue to be the case.

If a suburban bus is once an hour (and plenty are), then it’s not suddenly a compelling service if it becomes free. They need more services, not free services.

Myki, Smartrider, Go card, Opal public transport smartcards

It costs more to collect fares than the revenue

No, completely wrong.

Myki was an expensive system to build; around $1.5 billion including ten years running costs = $150 million per year.

It’s still expensive. The recently signed operations contract is $700 million for seven years = $100 million per year.

(Sydney’s Opal card system is also expensive, at $1.2 billion for 15 years. That’s a bit cheaper, but these systems can be very expensive when they involve coverage of a large network, requiring lots of hardware — whether or not it’s established technology or being built afresh.)

So yes, ticket systems cost a lot of money. But even if you supposed that on top of the $100-$150 million per year for the ticket system, ticket inspections were costing another $50 million per year (and assuming those staff aren’t needed anyway for other purposes such as safety), that’s still around $600 million per year lost if fares aren’t collected.

Or to put it another way: if Myki hadn’t been built, instead the system could have been fare-free… but only for about two years.

There would be some benefit from going fare-free: better passenger flows in and around stations, as fencing and gates are removed, and on and off trams and buses. But at a huge cost, and these issues can be ameliorated in other ways.

New Myki signage on trams, October 2015

But Estonia has free public transport!

No it doesn’t. If you look beyond the headlines, you’ll discover that recent changes have made regional buses in Estonia free.

Free journeys will be available for all Estonians using county buses, but won’t be available on trains (although enhanced subsidies will make tickets on the state-owned rail network cheaper). And in Estonian cities outside of Tallinn, all passengers will still have to pay to use all modes of public transit, including buses. — Huffington Post

It’s apparently not even all county regional buses:

To date, not all Estonia’s 15 counties have taken up the offer, though the free-fare zone is set to cover large areas of the country. — European Sting

So it excludes rail services, and city (suburban) buses — which would account for the majority of passengers.

Tallin, the capital of Estonia (population 610,000) does have free buses, trolley-buses, trams, ferries and trains within the city limits, but only for residents.

People still use a smartcard, but the cards issued to local residents give them free rides. Which means the system still incurs the cost of running the ticketing system. In fact Wikipedia notes that services are stopped during ticket checks — so it’s really not a fare free system at all.

Problems aside, was Tallinn’s free public transport a success? That depends on how you define success:

…a 2016 analysis of the Tallinn scheme found it didn’t really encourage many people to stop driving.

In 2014, a year into the experiment, the use of public transport had increased by 14%. However, car use only declined by 5%.

In fact, it was walkers who hopped on buses, as the number of trips made on foot dropped by a staggering 40%.

And while the share of car use marginally decreased, the average distance travelled by car actually went up. — European Sting

Cardiff Bay: Pierhead building and Millennium Centre

Wales has free public transport!

No it doesn’t. Wales has free bus services on weekends only… but only for 9 bus regional routes run by one operator, the Welsh government-owned Travel Cymru. It appears to be a measure designed to stimulate tourism.

The scheme excludes rail services, and all other bus services — including bus services within cities.

Hasselt, Belgium has free public transport!

No it doesn’t. They had free buses (not other modes) from 1997 until 2013 when they scrapped the scheme because of cost — in part the costs of running services to cater for higher patronage. The buses are still free for those under 19.

Hasselt isn’t a big city, in any case – it has a population of only about 71,000 people. That means it’s not a good example to point to when arguing for a large city to go fare free.

Paris…

The (socialist) Mayor of Paris has proposed it, but the idea has been opposed by others.

As far as I can make out, as of 2018, there is no major city in the world (of say more than a million people) where all public transport is free.

But the roads are free

Toll roads are an obvious exception, but even “free” roads aren’t actually free. They are heavily subsidised, but motorists still have to pay fuel tax at the pump, and registration and licencing fees.

Public transport is subsidised too of course. This is no reason to cut out fare collection and make the subsidy even bigger.

Crowded train, Richmond

Priorities

Chris Hale recently wrote in The Age that: “a public dollar frittered on fare discounting is invariably a waste, whereas that same dollar invested in better off-peak service gets great results.”

Fares certainly need to be affordable. Part of that is addressed ensuring there are concessions to those who need them.

But in any big city, even those hailed as having great public transport, service and infrastructure improvements are needed.

In fact the best public transport cities tend to get into a growth spiral of patronage – they need ongoing investment. It costs, but it’s good for their city.

All of which means that in any city, with even a moderately successful public transport network, given the huge amount of money raised from fares, it’s very difficult to envisage a time when making the service free would be a priority, or even desirable.

Is Google recording your conversations without you knowing?

You’ve probably heard about the case of the Amazon Alexa smart speaker that recorded a conversation and sent it to someone.

Amazon has been forced to explain how Alexa recorded a private conversation and sent it to an Echo user’s colleague without their knowledge. A Portland woman identified only as Danielle revealed the odd series of events in an interview with local TV station Kiro 7, claiming that an Amazon Echo device recorded a private conversation between her and her husband and sent the recording to an employee of the husband. — The Verge

I haven’t got any speakers in my house that record. (Some of the newer Sonos devices can do it. Mine can’t.)

And I don’t think I particularly want any.

The other week, probably triggered by the EU’s GDPR legislation, I got an email from Google suggesting I do a privacy check.

I had a look, and digging around found a page on Voice Activity.

To my surprise, this has dozens of voice recordings, going back about 18 months.

Google voice recordings

Apparently the Google app on my Android phone (actually my current phone and the previous one) has semi-regularly decided I was trying to attract the attention of the Google Assistant (normally invoked by saying “OK Google”), and started recording, then saved the recordings in the cloud.

I can play the recordings. The sound quality isn’t great, but you can make out the words. In none of them did I actually want the Google Assistant. They’re just random conversations with people.

You can turn the option off (well, you can pause it). Which I’ve now done.

It’s good that you can access the recordings, and change the option.

But I wonder how many people don’t know that Google is recording snippets of conversations and saving them on their servers?

Check yours via this direct link, or go to myaccount.google.com and then choose My Activity; Activity Controls; Voice & Audio Activity (where you can also Pause the feature).

Note: the Google App is also available on iOS, so it’s worth checking even if you have an iPhone, not an Android… And of course Siri has similar functionality.

Frequency is (temporary) freedom

If you used the Glen Waverley or Sandringham lines over the weekend, you might have got a pleasant surprise.

Both were running every 10 minutes for most of Saturday and Sunday — twice the usual frequency.

Why?

Because the Frankston and Dandenong (Cranbourne/Pakenham) lines were closed between the City and Moorabbin/Westall between Friday 8pm and Saturday 4pm.

The Dandenong line is also closed between Westall and Caulfield for the next two weeks as part of the big push to remove the final four level crossings as part of the skyrail project.

View from Murrumbeena towards Hughesdale during skyrail construction

Both the Dandenong and Frankston lines usually run every 10 minutes between 10am and 7pm. As part of their replacement with buses during the works, some passengers were shuttled to the Sandringham and Glen Waverley lines by bus.

(Not that you’d have known any of this was happening if you relied on the online timetables or journey planners. PTV messed up their data feeds. Their own web site and apps were only updated with the closures on Friday afternoon, and downstream users of the same data never got the update. So if you relied on the Google Maps trip planner, you’d have been completely oblivious to the bustitution.)

Bustitution 1st-2nd June 2018

Running more trains on the Sandringham and Glen Waverley lines was a great idea – to minimise delays for people coming off other lines, and to help the trains cope with the extra loads.

Apart from the official rail replacement buses, those using regular buses (or trams) to change lines also have benefited. One of my sons on Saturday decided to use the 703 from Bentleigh across to Brighton (12 minutes), then the Sandringham line (20 minutes), rather than catch a Frankston line replacement bus stopping all stations to the City (estimated 56 minutes). With half-hourly buses, and usually trains every 20 minutes, this would be potluck as to whether it worked. Trains every 10 minutes made the connection easy.

(Most stations have orbital cross-line tram or bus connections. Trams run at good frequencies every day; unfortunately buses don’t. Most are only hourly on weekends and evenings.)

People who usually use the Sandringham and Glen Waverley lines also got the benefit, though it’s doubtful that there was any patronage boost, since nobody knew about it. The only advertised change was that all trains ran direct to/from Flinders Street, not via the City Loop.

It looks like the doubling of services will happen again next long weekend, with both the Frankston and Dandenong lines shut down again from Moorabbin/Westall from Saturday to the end of Monday, for both grade separation (Dandenong line skyrail) and upgrades to accommodate the new High Capacity Metro Trains.

Frequent services make the whole network more usable, and if made permanent, would get more people on board. If only those lines (and the others) ran every ten minutes every day.

Old photos from May 2008

Another in my series of old photos from ten years ago, this time from May 2008…

Petrol prices shot up this month. This would be about $2.06 in today’s dollars. More amazing is that just four years earlier, the RACV had predicted prices wouldn’t go above about $1.08.
Petrol prices, May 2008

ACMI has put on a lot of great exhibitions, but this one might have been my favourite: basically the history of video games.
Game On at ACMI, May 2008

A familiar sight: trams queued along Swanston Street
Trams queued up due to a protest, 16/5/2008

…and this is why: a protest by pensioners, including Family First’s Steve Fielding, who joined in taking off his shirt, mimicking a previous protest by cab drivers.
Pensioner protest, protest, 16/5/2008

Flinders Street station: Aftermath of a train surfing incident.
Train surfing incident, Flinders Street Station 18/5/2008

May 2008 was the month of my twenty year school reunion. Here in a terrible old mobile phone photo, a bunch of us nose around the school hall – which hadn’t changed a bit.
20 year reunion, Melbourne High School, 2/5/2008

Siemens trains were utterly filthy for years, so it’s easy to forget this wasn’t always the case. This one looks pretty clean.
Siemens train, May 2008

What we know about the Myki mobile phone trial

The State Government has announced a trial of a mobile phone app for Myki.

Here’s what we know about the trial.

Will it mean the end of Myki cards?

No.

Despite the fascination of headline writers with Myki being replaced, a phone app will be an additional option, alongside cards.

Some people don’t have mobile phones, and may never have mobile phones. They’ll still need cards.

Will it only be E-class trams, as first thought?

No, the government now say it’ll be systemwide, without the need to rollout new equipment. Which is good – there are thousands of devices out there on stations, trams and buses. Replacing them all would be extremely expensive.

Why only on Android?

I’m told it’s because Apple has the iOS NFC feature heavily locked-down, apparently in the hopes of controlling all payments made with iPhones.

NFC isn’t on all Android phones, but it is on an increasing number of them. It’s already used by a number of public transport cards in some way, including being able to instantly check your balance on Sydney’s Opal.

Perhaps in time Apple will come to the party.

Myki, Smartrider, Go card, Opal public transport smartcards

Will it cover Myki Pass and Myki Money?

Yes, both. The app will be able to act as a Myki card, with the same fares.

It will also allow instant top-up, without the current 90 minute online delay. (This delay is similar on all public transport smartcards).

Will it cost $6 like a real card? Will it expire like a card?

I doubt it will expire. (Most phones don’t last 4 years like a Myki card is meant to!)

The cost is unknown. The $6 cost of a real card is partly because you can commence a (non-V/Line) trip on a zero balance, so the balance can drop as low as minus $4.30. It’s not yet clear how the app will work in this regard.

Perhaps if in some way it enables a user to pay just the cost of a daily fare, this can partly negate the need for a single use ticket, which isn’t currently provided.

What about contactless credit cards, such as Paypass?

It looks like existing Myki equipment isn’t compatible with that.

That’s a shame, as I suspect a lot more people have contactless cards than NFC mobile phones. Card payment works really well in London, and many cities (especially those that use a variant of London’s Oyster) are trying it.

But that may be changing over time, and it’s still a positive move to help make it easier to pay a fare.

And on balance, it’s better not to go down the path of huge expense to replace all the equipment around the system. Perhaps that can be planned for the new generation of station/bus/tram devices, to allow a later upgrade.

New Myki signage on trams, October 2015

When will the trial happen?

The trial is expected to run from July until early 2019.

I hate topping up. I want it now.

If you use Myki Money, you should consider Auto-Topup.

It was a bit kludgy when first introduced, but works really well now. I’ve had it set up on my kids’ cards for years.

Unfortunately it doesn’t work with Myki Pass, which is why they should really implement Myki Money weekly and monthly capping, which was originally planned.

How do I get involved in the trial?

PTV says: To stay up to date with the Mobile myki trial, including how to register your interest in participating in the trial later in the year, make sure your myki is registered.

What else?

This government fact sheet might help:

PTV: Mobile Myki fact sheet (28/5/2018)

…or leave a comment/question and I’ll see if I can get an answer.