Public Transport Should Be Just That


Another day, another Myki fiasco.

We now learn that the cards for Melbourne public transport, having reached their four-year limit, will spontaneously deactivate — a phenomenon destined to catch most users by surprise. This information was made public alongside news that the system appears to have been casually overcharging commuters, again mostly without their knowledge.

The Myki transport ticketing mechanism was launched in 2005, supposedly to be completed by 2007. Seven years and a staggering $1.5 billion later, it still doesn’t work.

Bear in mind that Melbourne’s first train pulled out of Flinders Street on 12 September 1854, with Governor and Lady Hotham sitting proudly in the "handsomely painted" first class carriage. In the 21st century, it’s cost 60 per cent of what NASA spent putting the Curiosity rover on Mars simply to perform a task managed adequately 158 years ago.

This whole sorry episode speaks volumes about today’s political culture. Both major parties have played a role in the Myki debacle, something that obviously limits the ability of public pressure to achieve accountability. More fundamentally, that bipartisanship signals a shared political commitment to the neoliberal principles responsible for the Myki SNAFU.

Today, the political class accepts, with an almost religious zeal, that the market innately guarantees productivity. That was the basis on which Jeff Kennett privatised both VLine and the Met during the mid-90s — a faith that if corporations ran public transport, competition would ensure efficiency and reliability.

There was never any reason to believe that. Historically, Melbourne’s railways began as private businesses. They were taken over by the state precisely because the entrepreneurs controlling them went bust, scrimped on safety or ran only lucrative lines and ignored less profitable destinations. The 19th century transport entrepreneurs behaved, in other words, precisely like private operators today, making decisions on the basis of their own short-term interests rather than for the public good.

But for neoliberal zealots, there’s never a problem for which privatisation’s not the solution, particularly if buttressed by technocratic mechanisms. Thus, if you’re having trouble making money from the provision of transport, it goes without saying that the answer involves the development of an insanely complex smart card system to gather your revenue.

While neoliberals typically polemicise against government intervention, in practice they rely upon the state to create and support markets. Transport users know how this plays out, as their daily journeys increasingly involve abuse rather than service.

That is, Myki’s inadequacies foster (as you would expect) fare evasion, both because buying a ticket has become so difficult, and because users feel no loyalty whatsoever to a system geared to someone else’s profit. So on every journey passengers are threatened by billboards and announcements about the dire penalties for not carrying a card, warnings reinforced by posses of inspectors (supplemented by the police) who periodically accost them — with the coercive parts of the system the only elements that seem adequately staffed.

It needn’t be like this. Melbourne’s mess illustrates the urgency of developing a broader political vision.

For a start, why shouldn’t a public transport system be publicly owned and publicly operated? Transportation is a clear social good, as important to ordinary people as any other basic utility. Why not decide collectively and openly where our trains run and how often? These are, after all, quintessentially political decisions, not private ones: transport options have huge implications for the city as a whole.

As soon as we consider the prospect of a publicly owned and operated transport service another obvious question presents itself: why do we need Myki at all? Rather than spending billions of dollars to collect fares, why not make the system free?

It’s self-evidently more equitable to fund transport through progressive taxation than via a user-pays mechanism that inevitably penalises the poor: at the moment, a millionaire and a casual retail worker pay the same amount when they ride the tram, even though the fare’s a much greater proportion of the latter’s income.

In any case, giving ordinary people an incentive to leave the car at home is precisely the kind of big gesture necessary if there’s any hope of reversing climate change.

Obviously, free public transport’s not on anyone’s political agenda right now. But why not? It’s not a particularly radical idea, merely an old style social democratic proposal, familiar from the days when even higher education was free. In one stroke, we could stop worrying about fare evasion and billion dollar ticketing systems, and instead concentrate on encouraging people to use trams and trains rather than cars.

Myki’s merely the most recent illustration of what should be now blindingly obvious: neoliberalism doesn’t work. There are plenty of alternatives out there. It’s time to start demanding them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.