When I was younger, especially a student at the University of Melbourne, free very much was the magic word.
Buy one Whopper get one free at Hungry Jacks, a free yoghurt at Museum Station, or a free beer at the University knitting club recruitment drive. If it was free, it rocked. I mean, I even emptied an entire Gatorade vending machine once, when it was accidentally spitting out its sugary goodness devoid of charge, much to the disdain of my then basketball coach. A six month supply of sporting enhancement never tasted so good!
However we all grow up, and most come to appreciate value over cost. That's not to say that we're still not seduced by free every once in a while (hands up who doesn't have a set of steak knives at home that they have never used?), and unfortunately that includes governments. Especially ones in an election year.
Trailing in the polls, Dennis Napthine went on a budget spending spree and included two 'gems': scrapping Zone 2 and free tram travel in the CBD.
The Free Tram Zone, which came into effect on January 1 this year, is shown above. Like some bright sparks on Twitter noted, if it doesn't immediately make you sing 'we all live in a green submarine', nothing will! Its circumference is basically the route of the City Circle, with a few added areas like Queen Victoria Market and an expanded Docklands.
Looking at it more deeply, it really is hard to ascertain who this will actually benefit. Most work day commuters would be coming from outside this zone, meaning they will still have to pay. It has been argued that tourists will benefit, allowing them to avoid the 'confusion' of having to use a Myki. However even the least adventurous of tourists would travel beyond these boundaries, with the key hotspots of the sporting precinct, Fitzroy and St Kilda all sitting outside the free zone. Given they would much more likely be unsure of the boundary than locals, they are also left exposed to fines for not having a valid ticket. Welcome to Melbourne: here, have a $80 on the spot fine!
And that brings us to the most problematic demographic: people who actually live inside this zone.
One of the main attractions of CBD living is meant to be that you can throw away the car keys and walk to work. Walking, aside from having obvious health benefits, is also the ultimate form of public transport. No cost, with no capacity or frequency issues to worry about. However as tram travel is also now free, it is just an added incentive for these people to get lazy and jump on a tram instead. So aside from the social cost of a less active population, all we end up with is more crowded trams.
In other words, the only mode shift this brilliant plan has brought us is from walking to public transport. It won't bring us a single extra cent in revenue (but will cost us $100 million, combined with the Zone 2 change), and we won't take a single car off the road doing it. In fact we run the risk of the opposite; if trams become too overcrowded and slow, commuters may be tempted to get back in their cars and drive to work. A retrogressive policy if ever I've seen one.
The plan to 'scrap' zone 2 also makes little sense. Despite Napthine’s bleating about equity, it is anything but equitable. Having users pay the same fare from Pakenham to the city (56km) as from say Brunswick to the city (10km) is counter intuitive and grossly unfair; commuters from the outer suburbs incur a much greater running and maintenance cost on the system than those from the inner suburbs.
Having everyone pay the same fare is tantamount to halving the cost of petrol in the suburbs, so that people driving from Dandenong to the city pay the same petrol bill as those driving from Caulfield! This of course would be outrageous; as it would be if the government artificially deflated the cost of housing in the inner suburbs to make that the same across all of Melbourne. Having a flat fare will also further encourage suburban sprawl; a huge problem already exacerbated by Matthew Guy’s reckless decision to extend Melbourne’s already bulging urban boundary.
Frustratingly, the perceived political gain is limited anyway. As discussed in Alastair's blog, cost is usually not a driver when it comes to people deciding to use public transport. According to research conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, guess where 'cost' ranked in the top 10 reasons for not using public transport? It didn't! How many times will we hear people say "public transport is still crap, but that's OK cause it's cheap now"? Said no one ever!
The fact is, people will accept this 'discounted' price as the norm after a very short amount of time, and go back to complaining about the deficiencies of the system like the price drop never happened. Worse still, this will most likely just jack up the price of a Zone 1 ticket, just like what happened when Zone 3 was scrapped in 2007, making any savings even more trivial and temporary.
|No service available at all||28.4||28.2||35.3||30.3||31.8||37.5||33.8||7.5||30.2|
|Convenience/comfort/privacy in private vehicle||27.5||26.8||20.0||27.0||27.0||16.9||17.2||45.9||25.7|
|No service available at right/convenient time||21.2||22.9||26.9||19.4||23.6||25.7||31.4||22.0||23.2|
|Travel time too long||16.9||18.6||13.3||16.1||14.3||6.8||8.2||30.5||16.2|
|Own vehicle needed before/during/after hours||11.1||8.3||9.7||11.1||9.8||7.6||9.6||19.7||10.0|
|Public transport services too far from home||6.4||5.2||5.7||5.4||4.4||3.4||5.6||2.9||5.5|
|Company or employer's vehicle needed during work/study hours||3.2||4.2||4.3||4.4||5.7||4.3||4.7||2.3||4.1|
|Too close to work/study to use public transport||3.6||3.3||2.3||3.6||2.8||6.3||3.1||1.7||3.2|
Unfortunately for Victorians, Labor chose to back this policy for fear that Napthine would whack them over the head with it; another case of good politics, bad policy. They could have easily got on the front foot here and put the $100 million a year these two policy dogs are costing us towards something else: new trams, Southland station (it could have gold plated toilets at that price), Melton electrification, tea cosies advertising the dangers of eating breakfast cereals past their used by date. Hell, anything would have been a better investment.
Either way, we are stuck with it now. If they thought it was politically tricky not backing this policy, try undoing it if it goes really wrong and overcrowding becomes unmanageable. The aforementioned limited gain of making it free/cheaper is unfortunately not true in reverse; people will sook like a hipster baby not allowed to have a salted caramel lollypop if we take their god given right to free trams away from them.
So next time you have to wait three trams before getting on because of freeloaders, have a think if you are really better off. And next time you walk past a broken vending machine spitting out free Gatorades, make sure you are carrying a big bag!