Circular Quay must be Australia’s
greatest public transport interchange. Buses, trains and ferries are all just
steps away. Trouble is, you’ll need a separate ticket to travel on any of them.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports that
shares in ERG Group, the company designing a ticketing system that can be used
on all types of public transport – have slumped after a warning of a $38
million financial-year loss and a blow-out in the cost of its main projects:

The State
Government has already spent $54 million on the proposed integrated ticketing
system – which is now six years late – and has set aside another $85 million in
this year’s budget.

Sydney’s is not the
only ERG project in trouble: the Translink card in San Francisco and Stockholm’s
Resekortet system are also facing years of delays and cost blow-outs.

So why bother with tickets? Back in March,
in the lead-up to free public transport for the Commonwealth Games, The Age
looked at what free travel all the time would mean:

Free train, tram
and bus rides would boost the number of trips by up to 30%, ease
traffic congestion, cut pollution and greenhouse gases, reduce road accidents,
transform railway stations into activity and business hubs and generally make
Melbourne a happier place to live, experts say.

It would cost
the State Government about $400 million a year in lost revenue, but about $60
million would be saved each year by getting rid of ticketing machines. State
subsidies already contribute about 60% to the price of a ticket…

Support for the idea came from an unusual
source – Robert Maclellan, a former transport and planning minister in the
Thompson and Kennett governments.

And that good economic rationalist the
Jeffmeister had an interesting take on it all:

“I argued
for a single coin ($1 or $2) system at the time of the new ticketing
system,” he said. “My biggest regret in public life is I didn’t stick
to that gut feeling of what was good for the system.”

There’s a well established argument from
economists that people don’t value services they receive for free. So why not
follow the Kennett approach – have gold coin turnstiles at railway stations and
for ferries and basic scrap-of-paper-tickets for buses, not high tech systems?

Public transport
journeys are already heavily subsidised. The fares don’t properly reflect
costs. The charges and ticketing systems cost money to administer and police.

The financial issues
seem surmountable. There are savings elsewhere. The environmental benefits. And
there are social policy and safety dividends, too.

Public transport
services often look like travelling Centrelinks. Get more people onto public
transport, and that’s immediately changed. Vary the mix of users and public
transport suddenly takes on a different character. Public transport becomes
less intimidating and more attractive. With more customers and more diverse
customers, standards of behaviour become self policing.

Various states have
tried various experiments with free public transport for certain groups at
certain times – for school students and pensioners, for example. They’ve been

But rather than
spending millions on ticketing systems that will date – and be dodged – why not
look at providing something simpler for everyone, all the time.

You end up with the view that this debate –
like so much to do with public policy – is all about the power of pencil
pushers, not people.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey