Randy Sutton is a retired police lieutenant Las Vegas Police Department and founder of the Wounded Blue national assistance and support organisation for injured and disabled law enforcement officers. He’s also the author of a number of books including The Power of Legacy, Personal Heroes of America’s Most Inspiring People.
You might remember that I interviewed Aaron Naparstek of the War on Cars podcast last year; he’s a big advocate of non-car based transport. I don’t know what he would make of a story from Luxembourg I saw this week, I suspect he’d be an enthusiast.
The story is that Luxembourg has decided to make all public transport free to use, in an effort to cut pollution and traffic jams. The country has an extensive network of tram, train and buses, and from now on, you can just hop on and go anywhere. I say extensive, but of course the country is tiny, it has a population of just over half-a-million and it’s smaller than Rhode Island, you could throw a stone across it if you had a good go at it. And it’s rich, so they can afford to make the transit system free; they have a big financial services industry, which is a polite way of saying that they launder drug and prostitution money, and the funds looted from national treasuries by third world dictators.
But that’s a different story some people are saying that this is the way to go for transit systems. If they’re free, then people will leave their cars behind, and use these systems that don’t cause traffic jams and don’t cause as much pollution.
Luxembourg isn’t the only country going down this line, Scotland is planning to make public transport free for under-18s, and some political parties in Ireland are advocating going the whole way and making the whole system free like in Luxembourg. I think that they’re wrong.
There are two big mistakes here. The first mistake is the effect that this won’t have, and the second mistake is the effect that it will. Let’s look at the effect that this won’t have first. The thinking is that people who drive will be tempted out of their cars by free public transit.
The problem here is that in almost any city in the world, public transit is already much, much cheaper than driving. If saving that much doesn’t motivate drivers to get the bus or the train or whatever, why would anyone think that saving just a little bit more will?
This whole scheme totally misunderstands why people drive. Look at the cars on any street. There is a huge variety. You can drive anything from a clanger for under a thousand bucks to spending several hundred thousand dollars of a top-end luxury vehicle.
But one thing that they all of them, expect the very cheapest rustbucket, almost all of them have in common is that the driver could have saved a few bucks by getting a cheaper car. From the highest-end luxury performance vehicle to the most ordinary vehicle, the driver could have traded down to the next cheapest model. Every single driver, except perhaps the bottom one per cent could have saved a few bucks if they wanted to.
But they didn’t. They chose to spend more money than they really needed to, because they wanted the comfort and the prestige. Nothing wrong with that really. I have to say that I do much the same myself with other products. I have a phone that’s really much more expensive than what I need. Probably the same for the audio equipment that I use to make this podcast.
But if you understand why people do what they do, you have a better chance of understanding how to motivate them to change their behavior. And it’s clear that overwhelmingly, finance isn’t the main thing that motivates drivers. If making mass transit cheaper could tempt them away from their cars, then it would have already done so – because in most big cities, mass transit is already vastly cheaper than driving the cars that most drivers drive.
But in a lot of cities, there are a lot of people that walk or cycle to their destination. Even if drivers aren’t motivated to a modal shift, it’s pretty obvious that free public transit will encourage cyclists and walkers to hop on the public transit. That doesn’t provide any benefit in terms of reducing traffic or pollution, but I’m sure that the walkers and cyclists appreciate it.
But the people already riding the bus might not be so happy. Mass transit systems in many cities are already running at capacity. They just switching having walkers and cyclists getting on a few stops before a long-time user might mean that they can’t fit on, or at the very least that their ride would be a whole lot less comfortable. It might even be so much more uncomfortable as to push those people to drive their journey.
And that’s the point. All the evidence would indicate that drivers who have a choice to use mass transit and don’t choose it, do so because they like the comfort and prestige of driving. So if you have a big wad of money to spend on your city’s mass transit system, spending it on making that system free is unlikely to improve anything, unless that system is running with loads of spare capacity, which is almost never the place.
But if you are thinking of spending that wad to use mass transit to improve pollution and traffic congestion, here’s the way to do that. Spend it on making the mass transit cleaner, safer, more regular, more reliable, more extensive and operating for longer hours. That last point is important, by the way. No point in taking mass transit out for the evening if you can’t get home. Supermarkets and radio stations that operate 24 hours don’t always do it because they make a profit in the small hours of the morning, they do it because they know that if they don’t their competitor will, and the customer who uses it then once, will get used to going to their competitor all the time.
And, to be blunt, money should be spend on making mass transit more prestigious. Tram and train systems are less prone than busses to getting stuck in traffic, but they are more favored by the sort of people who could switch to a car, partly because saying ‘I got the train’ sounds better than ‘I got the bus’.
People advocating free mass transit sometimes argue ‘why can’t we do both?’ Here’s why: what you’re doing is spending money. Money is limited, or at least it represents limited resources. Every cent you spend on making mass transit free is a cent you didn’t spend on making it better. And making it better will always give a better return than making it free.