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Metro Tasmania (Free Public Transport) Amendment Bill 2023

Vica Bayley MP

Vica Bayley MP  -  Wednesday, 13 September 2023

Tags: Metro Tasmania, Public Transport, Legislation

Mr BAYLEY (Clark) - Mr Speaker, I move -

That the bill be now read a second time.

The bill amends the Metro Tasmania Act 1997 to introduce provisions that require Metro to not charge passenger fares for public transport. The bill inserts a new clause 19D which sets out that:

The company may not charge a fee to passengers for passenger transport services.

Consequential to this amendment, the bill revokes the Metro Tasmania Fares Order 2016 and repeals section 22, which would serve no purpose following the revocation of the order. Clause 2 of the bill sets out that the act will commence a year after the day on which it receives Royal Assent. This is to provide for an adequate transition period, as well as to ensure that appropriate funding can be considered in the next budget cycle prior to commencement.

I urge the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, who I note is not in the Chamber at the moment, to note this delayed commencement. Reflecting on what I heard this morning, a straw man argument that fare free travel would strip funding from Metro and its fleet, the expectation here is clearly that earnings forgone by this change be funded from consolidated revenue. There would be no stripping funding from the business unless the Government deliberately chose to manage it this way and to run Metro into the ground. The evidence tells a story that funding this kind of initiative provides myriad benefits.

In 2012, the United States Transportation Research Board conducted a thorough investigation of free public transport services. The report identified 39 public transit systems in the United States, offering fare free services. Of these, the smallest increase in passenger patronage experienced was 21 per cent. The study found that although there is typically an increase in passenger investment and total costs, the Government subsidy per passenger drops considerably. Although the cost to Government coffers would undeniably be higher, the benefits per dollar spent, in terms of transported passengers, fleet efficiency, reduced vehicle emissions, increased economic activity and improved quality of life would be considerably higher.

In 2022, Metro Tasmania received $11.2 million from the public in ticket fare revenue. This was only 16 per cent of its total revenue, with the majority of the rest coming from service contracts at $56 million. The state Government already pays the majority of Metro Tasmania's revenue. The additional costs of fare free travel to the budget in this context would not be significant. It should also be noted that these costs would be offset, at least in part, by increases in tax revenue from increased economic activity, reduced expenses associated with ticketing and Green Card systems, reduced rental expenses for shop front spaces and reductions in turnover costs flowing from improved working conditions for drivers.

The research also found that fare free services resulted in more efficient and punctual bus services as a result of the elimination of fare collection and the allowance of boarding through all doors. For those of us who catch buses, just think of the time we have waited while passengers fumble with cash and seek to reload a discharged green card with a credit card with no credit. How many times have you seen a bus driver wave someone on without paying because the delay involved with paying or an inability to pay at all is simply not worth making a busload of commuters wait longer?

The lack of fare collection reduces conflict between drivers and passengers about fares. This is a result that was also explicitly noted during Metro Tasmania's free trial in March 2022. Given that this antisocial behaviour is a significant contributor to poor driver experiences, this is one of several solutions that could contribute to poor driver experiences, this is one of several solutions that could contribute to current issues with driver retention and service shortages. This is significant and not just for the driver.

Key elements influencing commuter decision-making and choice or whether to bus it or not, does not only involve cost. Perceptions of safety and the commitment of time required to use public transport are significant determining factors in decision making. Make public transport more efficient and more pleasant, and more people will use it. To quote the Tasmanian Government on announcing the five-week fare-fee period in March 2022, Mr Ferguson said:

Importantly, it also encourages Tasmanians who aren't in the habit of catching buses, to give them a try and enjoy the convenience and price advantage. Congestion is assisted by this type of successful public transport mode shift.

Research has found that in almost every location where fare-free policies exist, bus operators are supportive and express pride in their contributions to liveability, cleaner air, reduced carbon emissions and reduced congestion.

The impact of free public transport on individuals' lives should also not be under estimated. Dr Mike Harris, lecturer in urban design and landscape architecture, from the School of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales has been advocating for free public transport in New South Wales. Dr Harris argues:

It is probably more common than you think for people who are on lower incomes to limit their public transport usage because the costs add up. So, for them, not having to pay would be one less cost. But, more than that, it opens up many more opportunities to travel where they need, when they need.

In an ABC story evaluating the success of Tasmania's 2022 free public transport period, pitched in no small part by the Government as a cost of living measure, there was an interview with Kelly Cubit that provided a real-life example of these benefits. In the five-week trial, Kelly estimated that her family saved at least $150 on transport. Kelly also said that the initiative allowed them to get out and explore areas of Hobart they would not have been able to access otherwise. Kelly said:

We came down to Margate for the last lot of bus trips and enjoyed the day, but would not have been able to come if we had to pay for it. It is not even a suburb we would think about if we didn't have access to the free buses.

Kelly also observed that free buses during the school holidays would ensure that the children were not holed up at home and parents who could not afford petrol or do not own a car would still be able to go out and enjoy school holidays. She concluded, 'I'll be devo when I've got to pay again'. She is devo today, presumably.

This testimony highlights the individual impacts a policy like this can have on the experiences of everyday families. Free public transport would provide many people, adults and children, with access to the same experience that some of us are fortunate enough to take for granted. Dr Harris also noted the economic benefits of such a policy. The waiving of public transport fares in NSW in April 2022, saw a spike in trips and consumer spending across the CBD. He also observes that congestion on the roads costs the economy nearly $20 billion annually from people wasting time in traffic.

There are also fewer tangible benefits, perhaps best summarised with one of the findings from the 2012 United States Transport Research Board:

The elimination of fares essentially places transit in the same category of services as schools, libraries and most community parks. Although these services are paid for with community taxes, people usually do not pay a service charge to use them. They are regarded as essential elements of what a community deems important and why it is worth living in. Removing the fare requirements of transit democratises the service, making it equally available to everyone, regardless of income, to use as often as they like.

If properly funded and maintained, the image of buses changes from being the clunky transportation choice of last resort to the service that connects all elements of the community and provides equal opportunity to access all that a community offers.

That is essentially what we are talking about here today in this House. For those of us fortunate enough for transport to be accessible and affordable, free public transport might not feel like a big deal. For many people it would be transformative. For the community perception of public transport, it would also be transformative.

The only reason that this bill is constrained to Metro, thus the public transport options it provides in Hobart, Launceston and Burnie, is that it is the only service where provision to charge a fee is provided in legislation and thus, the only one the parliament can engage with to restructure their arrangements.

We will always encourage the Government to do more, to invest more in rural and regional services, to make them available for more communities, to make them free.

On a final note, I acknowledge that while there may be very real and tangible benefits to making public transport fare-free, it is not a silver bullet to the challenges facing Metro and its customers today. Tasmania needs to invest in more services and routes, we need to improve bus driver retention with better pay and conditions and we need to extend free services to regional areas in Tasmania. This bill would make a positive contribution to many of the issues currently facing Metro Tasmania, but admittedly would not solve them all.

Voting against this bill will not cause the other solutions we need to be implemented. Not spending the $11 million that fare-free public transport would cost the budget does not mean that it would be spent on driver recruitment and retention, transit offices or a new fleet of buses. Similarly, voting for this bill will not prevent their implementation.

Any attempt to deflect from this bill with discussion of other policies that members would like to see or a suggestion of where else money could be invested is a straw man argument.

The list of benefits that this bill would achieve is extensive. It would demonstratively ease cost of living pressures. That is what was shown in the 2022 Metro Tasmania trial. It would improve the quality of life. It would improve transport equality. It would improve access to education and employment. It would reduce congestion. It would reduce resultant emissions. It would increase our attractiveness as a destination. It would improve the liveability of our cities, increase business patronage and reduce fare-related disputes, and therefore reduce the negative pressures on bus drivers that are being experienced every day across the network. It would improve the punctuality of public transport and foster community pride in our public transport system.

Tasmania consistently wants to believe that we are a leader in sustainability, that we care for our community and want to maximise opportunity and minimise disadvantage. The Government claims it wishes to govern with heart. Making public transport free delivers a raft of benefits that were proven in the state just a single year ago. We have already demonstrated that it works. We have heard the positive response of people. We know that it comes at a very modest cost to the budget. This is entirely doable for a state of our size.

Mr Speaker, I commend the bill to the House.