Free riders: here's a radical idea

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There is a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver, on Denman St. near Robson, where the staff cheer when new clients are seated, and applaud when they exit. We should all do the same when our fellow citizens take the bus. Having public transport replace the private automobile is the major urban environmental challenge.

I have a radical idea about how to promote the use of subways, metros, sky trains and other public transit: let riders on for free. How so, you ask? Easy. Those who take public transport pay twice — once for those roads which only carry private vehicles, and then again by buying a ticket or a pass, the user fees for public transport.

It should be the other way around. The polluter driving around in a private vehicle should pay taxes to cover the direct cost of auto transport, road costs. Then, the car driver should pay a part of the cost of the service they are not using, the bus.

Since public transit is much more environmentally friendly, all benefit. Therefore, all should pay. Making riders bear a disproportionate share of the cost of public service every time they pay a fare, or buy a pass is perverse. The better way to pay for public transit is through taxes paid by all, whether or not they use the transit facilities.

With municipal and provincial authorities buying into a twisted logic whereby public services have to break even, using private sector criteria for pricing cost, transit fares go up, without service improving. The incentive is wrong: get out of the bus, and into your car; help burn up the planet.

The bike dealer on Denman, not far from the Japanese restaurant, has a sense of community economics. “There is price,” he says, “then there is cost.” He explains that a new bike carries a higher price than a used bike, but a used bike costs more to maintain. Bike rental agencies sell off their stock, just before they become expensive to maintain. A new bike comes with a year's worth of maintenance built into the price. So a new, higher priced bike could end up costing the same as the lower priced used bike.

In what he has to say, there is a good argument for renewing the stock of public transit.

Not to mention that we all benefit when people use a bike rather than a carbon dioxide emitting, fossil fuel burning, internal combustion engine.

Society pays dearly for the idea that having individuals choose among ready alternatives, on the basis of lowest price, guarantees the most efficient allocation of resources. The best alternative may not be available; it might require a political decision to make it part of the options at hand.

Most often it is the community as a whole which is affected by the inability of the individual choice model to figure out how to assign the social costs of the decision to pollute. But the price system has its merits; it contains great incentives.

So the socially informed choice is for transit authorities to abolish fares. If you can ride for free, why take the car? The transit system should get priority routing on existing roads, more frequent service, and the most environmentally advanced equipment money can buy.

Those who do not ride also benefit from public transport in lower pollution costs; they should be paying the same way as the riders, through the tax system. Once they are paying, maybe they will decide to use the public system, the lower cost alternative.

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