Some thoughts on transport network pricing

On Saturday I participated in an Infrastructure Victoria session on transport network planning. It was described as a kind of speed-dating session – seven speakers doing quick 12 minute conversations with groups of 4-5 people.

They suggested kicking off with an introduction to your view on the topic, then seeing where the conversation takes you. After a couple of goes you pretty quickly get into a rhythm.

The thoughts below started as an approximation of my opening comments, but I’ve added a bit along the way:

Fare pricing can be an important tool to help ease congestion – both on the roads and on public transport.

Crowded train and platform at Caulfield during service delays

The fare system we have now is a hangover from the 1980s.

Before then, trains trams and buses had complicated, separate fares.

In the early 80s they had a shake-up – and introduced the three zones in Melbourne, one inside the other.

There have been tweaks and adjustments, but that’s basically what we still have today.

  • In 2004 they removed the Short Trip ticket from zone 1
  • In 2007 they got rid of zone 3; it merged with zone 2
  • In 2010 they removed the City Saver zone from Myki
  • Then in 2015 they made it so if you pay for zone 1, you’ve also paid for zone 2.

So we now basically have a flat fare system in Melbourne. If you want to travel two stops on the tram, it’s $4.40. If you want to travel from Werribee right across Melbourne to Pakenham, that’s also $4.40.

Given governments have an eye on cost recovery, this may mean upward pressure on that flat fare. It’s already risen at CPI plus 2.5% for four years running.

And for short trips this can discourage people from using public transport – they might see it as cheaper to drive.

There’s no peak/off-peak difference. If I travel on the train at 8am when it’s packed, it’s the same cost as at 11am when there’s plenty of space. (Of course, there has to also be a good frequent time-competitive service available at 11am. Off-peak service is very patchy around the network.)

“Peak” crowding is not confined to commuting hours. CBD trams were already crowded at lunchtime before the Free Tram Zone was introduced. This has considerably added to crowding.

Crowding on tram route 96 in Bourke Street

There is the Earlybird discount – free rides before 7:15am. This is bit of a blunt instrument – it reflects what Metcard was capable of when it was introduced last decade. A free ride in the morning, but the usual price going home later. So there’s no incentive to make your trip home in the afternoon at a time when it’s quiet. It also only applies to Metro trains. Catch a bus to the station? Then you pay. This can encourage people to drive to the station instead.

There is a discount of sorts after 6pm – you only pay one fare for unlimited travel until 3am. That’s good, but it’s also a reflection on the old ticket system – when paper tickets were around, there wasn’t enough space for a notch for every hour of the day!

2-hour Met ticket from 1991-92

So having spent a billion dollars on a complicated smartcard system, we have it charging a $4.40 flat fare for almost everybody.

But the Melbourne flat fare doesn’t apply outside zone 2. It jumps dramatically if you travel beyond Melbourne.

People coming in from Geelong to Melbourne pay $13.40 one way – if instead they drive through suburban Geelong to Lara and get on the train there, it’s $4.40. The fare system is providing a huge incentive for people to drive through Geelong.

Free station car parks are also an issue. Some of them get misused by non-public transport users. But apart from that, they cost tens of thousands of dollars per space – then they’re given away to whoever is lucky enough to show up early enough in the morning to get them – even if they have options to use a connecting bus, or walk or ride to the station. Those options need to improve, of course. (And maybe they could if all the money wasn’t spent on parking.)

So there’s plenty of scope to reform fares – Myki is capable of more zones, and off-peak discounts, and concessions for those who need them. This could be the way forward – but whatever the system, it’s important that the fares are affordable, logical, and equitable.

They could start with easy stuff like re-introducing the once-proposed weekly cap, which would encourage Monday to Friday users to also use the system at weekends (as well as removing some confusion and doubt for people trying to decide between Myki Money and Myki Pass).

King Street, lunchtime

Road pricing isn’t really my area, but it’s not hard to see how it’s similarly flawed. The only road pricing in Victoria is the toll roads. Again, it’s a hangover from past decades – tolls are to pay private toll companies that built Citylink and Eastlink.

This means it’s free to drive through the CBD, but it costs money to bypass the City and drive over the Bolte Bridge instead, which is a crazy outcome.

So the pricing on public transport and on roads is problematic.

Politicians are terrified of changes, because inevitably someone ends up being disadvantaged, but it’d be good to see them have the courage to introduce reforms to fix some of these problems.

Some people will always object to reform, but if the benefits can be quantified and explained, the broader community will take it on board.