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There’s no such thing as a free bus service, Mr Premier

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 5 December 2008, p. 15
http://www.smh.com.au/news/opinion/theres-no-such-thing-as-a-free-bus-service-mr-premier/2008/12/04/1228257224300.html

Nathan Rees promised to make Sydneysiders’ lives easier on Wednesday as he launched the off-peak bus service between Circular Quay and Central Station. “Sometimes it can be difficult to know exactly which bus to catch if you’re only going a few blocks in the city,” he said. The buses will be free to use, courtesy of the Government. But is he making a positive contribution to public transport or is it a politician’s pre-Christmas gimmick?

Let’s start with some practical issues. There is no lack of buses in the CBD. If you need to get from Circular Quay to Central you have a variety of options. Departing after, say, 2pm, there are six bus services within a quarter of an hour. The 343, 376, 422, 423, 426 and 428 will all get you to your destination. If you are short of time, you can take one of the many regular trains.

Clearly, there has not been a shortage of public transport options, especially between Circular Quay and Central.

Whether it is worth taking a bus is a different question. It is 2.5 kilometres from Circular Quay to Central. An average walker needs half an hour for this journey. Surprisingly, this is about the time a bus takes. So going on a bus for the whole distance of the loop service will hardly save you any time. At best, it just saves you from carrying your shopping bags or briefcase.

But maybe Mr Rees did not intend the service for people who want to travel all the way to Central. Maybe it is just meant for people going a few blocks, as he said. But then the advantages of the bus almost completely disappear.

The service will operate at a 10-minute frequency, so the average wait at a bus stop will be about five minutes. Why would you want to wait if you only need to travel a few hundred metres? In many cases it will be faster to walk than to wait for the loop bus and travel at a snail’s pace. There is no point waiting for bus which will probably be crowded if you want to get from the QVB to Wynyard.

So, there are already many bus and train connections along the route of the new service, and for short journeys, the new loop bus does not promise any time savings. How such a service will make the CBD more attractive remains the Premier’s secret.

Mr Rees may claim the bus will be used by people who would not otherwise take public transport. But that is nonsense. If you put a zero price on any good or service, of course some people will go for it. But that’s not the same as saying they value it as much as it costs to provide it. If they really valued it, they would be willing to pay for it, too. And at $1.80, single bus tickets in the CBD are probably not beyond the average Sydneysider’s reach.

The bus will merely divert passengers from regular bus services to the free service, so existing buses will travel empty while the free bus will be packed.

No matter how you look at it, the new service does not make sense. Nor is it really free. It may be provided by the Government, but the $3 million it costs is ultimately shelled out by you and me, the taxpayers. As such, it is paid for by taxpayers from rural NSW, who are unlikely to use it. They are entitled to wonder why they should subsidise people taking buses in central Sydney. All of this we should not forget when the state’s budget is in disarray and other public services are under threat.

Milton Friedman once said there was no such thing as a free lunch. Someone should tell Mr Rees there are no free buses either.

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