Wednesday, 4 January 2012

In 2012 commuters are being given a false choice

Given a choice between short-term cuts in transport fares or longer term investment in networks, which do people prefer?

Polling in 2010, by YouGov, and in 2011, by ComRes, suggest it is very much the former. On this basis, Ken Livingstone's new campaign against the large rises in transport fares announced by Mayor Johnson, may have more weight than many in the media have appreciated. 

What is the real shame is that national Government policy forces this choice. Many other EU countries use greater taxpayer subsidies for transport systems. By subsidising transport through taxation, the burden of cost is spread more widely - this also avoids the false choice that is being presented in the London mayoral election of 2012. 

However, in order to accept this, political leaders have to be in a position to justify why those that don't commute every day by train, tube, tram or bus should subsidise those that do. Well, here are three arguments:

The first is an economic argument. Developing transport infrastructure provides benefits for the country as a whole, encouraging business investment. This works on numerous levels, from businesses in catering, hospitality and retail industries that rely on large numbers of lower-paid workers taking buses to work, to major multinationals based in the centres of large cities that can only function correctly with modern mass transit networks.

The second could be termed a 'knock-on effect' argument. Even regular drivers stand to benefit from better public transport, quite simply because where train or tube services are worse, more people turn to their cars. The net effect of poor public transport - as many in cities across America or Asia can testify - is more gridlock on the roads.

The third argument could be described as the safety net argument. By investing in sustainable mass transit, even those reliant on cars have the opportunity, should they need it, to use alternative forms of transport. So a driver who is unable to drive for whatever reason, or who has a change in personal or work circumstances, or even just needs to get to an airport to go on holiday, has the safety net of a viable alternative if they require it.

With Osborne in the treasury and Cameron at Number 10, these arguments aren't likely to be heard forcefully in the corridors of power for some time. But, as the roads become ever more gridlocked, the case for investing properly in transport will become ever more persuasive. 

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