Why Adelaide Just Might Have The Best Public Transport System In Australia

Sorry, Melbourne.

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I’m going to start this discussion with an indisputable fact: South Australia’s public transport has problems. Almost non-existent transport on Sundays, ridiculously unsafe crossings at several train stations, a moody and unresponsive website, a single tram that goes nowhere and a lack of basic hygiene, to name but a few.

If you’re from Melbourne, you might scoff and point to your city’s extensive tram infrastructure, getting any commuter across the city in a matter of minutes. If you’re from Queensland, you have the right to brag that the train will get you from Brissy to the Gold Coast in under two hours. If you’re a Sydneysider, you might point to the superiority of your train and light rail, and continue to jog along Bondi Beach to get a ‘rice paper roll’ or whatever it is you people do. And if you’re from Darwin… well, let’s not talk about Darwin.

But we should talk about something that Adelaide’s public transport system gets so, so right: a radically different fare system that, if other cities took it up, could forever alter the way Australians perceive the role of public transport in our lives.

One Price Fits All: The Case For Flat-Fare Public Transport

If you’re reading this in Melbourne, Sydney, or Brisbane (or any other state or territory, for that matter) you’ll be familiar with a public transport model that has a cost associated per kilometre travelled – in other words, the further you ride the train, bus, light rail or ferry, the more you pay.

But when the South Australian public transport model was designed, the government chose to do something rather different. Instead of getting users to pay the direct cost of their transit, the South Australian model focuses on the overall cost of the trip from Point A to Point B and dividing that cost equally among all passengers on that line. You, the joyful commuter, can jump on a train, bus or the single, solitary tram and pay the same amount of money to get one stop down the line or across the entire city.

“But wait!” you cry. “Isn’t that a rip off? Why should I pay as much for three stops as someone else pays for 15? Where’s my value for money?”

Well, joyful-commuter-turned-concerned-citizen, your value for money comes from having a fair and equitable public transport system – something the rest of the country is sorely lacking.

Think of it like this. Growing Australian cities are greatly affected by urban sprawl. In order to keep housing prices affordable (cue manic laughter followed by muffled sobbing from Generation Y), over the years land on city fringes has been increasingly opened up to be developed into residential suburbs. Given that the Great Australian Dream was historically to own a free-standing house, we continue to pursue policies that build ‘cheap’ plan-based houses on city fringes, pushing the boundaries of our cities ever further out. These houses are typically bought or rented by people in lower socioeconomic brackets; the average individual income of someone living within 10 kilometres of a major city is 25 percent higher than someone living 20 kilometres away.

So what does this have to do with public transport? Apart from Malcolm Turnbull, the most frequent users of public transport are people from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. This is the entire point of providing the service, which according to the ABS, provides “a relatively low-cost method of travel for those who are unable to drive or do not have access to a private motor vehicle”.

But if you’re a working-class fringe-dweller, and you catch public transport into the city to work in seven of Australia’s eight major cities, you’re paying not just a higher fare than your wealthier counterparts in the inner city, but a higher percentage of your wage on transport too. In effect, people are doubly penalised: once for catching public transport, and again for living far away from the city. South Australia’s system turns this unfair and inequitable arrangement on its head.

But Why Should Inner-City People Pay For Those Further Out?

The argument for a South Australia-style fare structure is virtually identical to that of tax brackets: the more you earn, the higher percentage tax you pay. In almost every Australian city with a public transport system worth the name, poorer people in the suburbs are paying a higher total cost for a longer travel time on a lower budget — the equivalent of people on lower incomes paying a higher rate of tax than their wealthier counterparts.

Apart from the obvious egalitarian nature of charging everyone the same rate, the Adelaide system is effectively subsidising the cost of those who travel further. Live near the city? You pay $3.40 to grab the (single, only, I’m not even joking, we have one) tram three stops into town. But if you live an hour and a half away, you can pay the same amount to travel 20 stops into the city, meaning that regardless of where you live, or how much you earn, you have an equal opportunity to travel to employment, training or school.

Under the Sydney Opal transit system, by contrast, all pricing is based on something known as the “socially optimal” fare system; business-speak for ‘the maximum the average person will pay without complaining’. This is an entirely reasonable premise for a commercial enterprise, of course; you should push your price point to the highest possible level which does not impede customer growth.

But we’re not talking about a commercial enterprise: the philosophy of the public transport system, in Sydney and everywhere else, is to provide an affordable alternative to car travel. Of the world’s most affordable public transport systems, the top five are all flat fare systems. Considering the goal of public transport is for the system to be a cost-effective alternative to car travel, it seems that flat fare systems like Adelaide’s are the way to go.

A Right, Not A Business: Rethinking Australian Public Transport

As outlined above, none of this is to say that Adelaide has a mystically perfect transit system. As is the case in many cities, Adelaide’s public transport is often no alternative to car travel, simply because of the lack of services, convenience, or location options. Unless you live on or very near to an arterial road you are isolated, and unless your workplace, school, or university is on the exact opposite side of the city, you need to transfer to a different service in the CBD.

Partly as a result, public transport is seen as the transport method for poor people. Not owning a car has social costs that can outweigh the economic savings; most jobs require you to have your own transport to ensure that you are punctual and reliable, which assumes that public transport is neither. Even the design of our cities reflects this mindset; Adelaide’s grid-pattern layout is designed to be far more accessible via car.

This is why it’s so important that public transport is provided as an essential service rather than as a user-pays model which entrenches buses, trains and light rail as the poor person’s options-of-last-resort. The flat fare system is geared towards getting more commuters on public transport by creating an incentive to get people away from cars — a person choosing between a long commute in a car and a long train ride is more likely to choose the latter if it’s cheap. In an ideal world, as the number of people using public transport increases the cost per user is reduced, making the system even more accessible. This doesn’t work on a pay-by-the-kilometre system as effectively, as the costs are still largely worn by those who travel further.

The public transport debate needs to be reopened in Australia, and there needs to be a bigger focus on providing a service that is actually used but encourages social responsibility. That will come at a cost; the public transport systems of Australian cities are notoriously underfunded and on the periphery of government agendas. But unless we’re willing to re-embrace public transport as a vital public service, people on the margins of Australia’s biggest cities will continue to get a raw deal.

Rupert Hogan-Turner is a freelance writer and media consultant. You can catch him cycling around Adelaide or tweeting @Rupert_ht

Feature image via SA Planning, Transport and Infrastructure