Are these contenders for ‘spin doctor’ of the year?

Public transport fares effective 1 January 2012 (Metlink)

There’s never any shortage of creativity when politicians, business and the media want to put a particular ‘spin’ – meaning an interpretation that furthers their own agenda, sometimes irrespective of logic, truth or salience – on an issue.

I saw a couple of interesting ‘spins’ this week when the Victorian Government announced the public transport fare increase that takes effect from January 1 2012. Three in particular caught my attention. I don’t know if they’re “best in show” but I think they might be leading contenders for The Melbourne Urbanist’s (proposed) annual SPIN Award to honour excellence in deceptiveness, bias, self-serving behaviour and a related string of detestable (and yet to be defined) offences.

The first is the on-line survey The Age ran this week to accompany its story breaking* the news about the fare increase. The Age blatantly sought the sympathy of outraged readers, posing the following question in its on-line survey:

Will you use less public transport as a result of the increase in fares in 2012?

  • Yes, I can’t afford to pay any more so will look at other options
  • No, I’ve got no choice but to fork out the extra cash in fares

For what it’s worth, 52% answered no. But it’s not worth much because almost everything imaginable is wrong with this survey. For a start it’s a leading question, connecting the increase directly to “less” use. That might be tolerated in a newspaper survey, given a more neutral alternative could be a bit clumsy. But where it goes seriously bad is with response options that don’t settle for a straightforward “Yes” or “No”.

Instead, The Age assumes it knows the reasons for the reader’s answer and and there’re only two possibilities – either “I can’t afford to pay” or “I’ve got no choice”. Other possibilities aren’t considered. What, for example, do respondents do if they want to say “No, I’m happy to pay to improve public transport”, or “Yes, it’s a matter of principle”?

The response options should’ve been a straightforward and unambiguous “Yes” or “No” (and a “don’t know”, or similar, is always a good idea). But this is not a survey designed to get an objective answer. It’s simply and unabashedly part of the main news story. It might as well be a photo or a breakout box. It’s not there to add objectivity; it’s there to add a bit of “colour”. Even the single “No” answer on offer is heavily biased to a begrudging acceptance – “I’ve got no choice”.

At first I wondered why journalism schools don’t give their students a basic grounding in survey design. After all, on-line surveys are ubiquitous. But then I realised that would be pointless – on-line surveys by media organisations are a tool of drama, not research.

The second comes from Metlink, which evidently will go to any lengths to present the fare increase in a favourable light. Counter-intuitively, Metlink tells travellers they “can beat the price rise” by switching from Metcard to myki. Here’s how Metlink says it can be done:

For example, a 2 hour Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 20 cents to $4 while a 2 hour myki cap will increase by 26 cents to $3.28. A Daily Zone 1 Metcard will increase by 60 cents to $7.60 and the daily myki cap will increase 52 cents to $6.56. A Daily Zone 1 + 2 Metcard will increase 90 cents to $11.90, while the equivalent myki fare will increase 88 cents to $11.08.

On this evidence Metlink won’t pass Communication 101, but the bottom line is myki really is cheaper under the new structure than Metcard is at present for the exact comparisons Metlink has specified. Trouble is, Metlink has very carefully cherry-picked its examples. It’s only true if the traveller shifts from a single use Metcard this year to a multi-use ticket next year (and not just to myki – works for multi use Metcards too).

However all those travellers who already have a myki won’t be able to “beat the price rise”. Nor will regular travellers who currently use multi-trip Metcards like a 10x2hr or a 5xDaily be able to “beat the price rise” – Zone 1 versions of both those tickets cost $30.20 at present, or $6.04 per day for a two-way commute. Under the new fare structure, a daily myki cap will cost more – $6.56.

The comparison Metlink is making is dubious – it’s not comparing apples with apples. Myki isn’t an “occasional” system like a 2 hour Metcard. Travellers don’t top-up $3.28 each time they want to make the occasional trip within Zone 1. Myki is more like a multi-trip Metcard – users who top-up via the web or the call centre must put in $10 minimum. I expect most people put in considerably more because it’s bothersome to top-up frequently. This after all is one of the advantages of myki.

Myki should be compared against multi-trip Metcards. As noted above, that comparison reveals myki doesn’t enable travellers to come even close to “beating the price rise”. Read the rest of this entry »

Is the 9% increase in public transport fares…fair?

Fare revenue per passenger kilometre for selected cities ($)

Many people are outraged that the Government has dared to increase public transport fares in real terms. From 1 January, fares in Melbourne will rise by around 9%, well in excess of the rate of inflation (3.6% for the 12 months to the September Quarter).

From what I can make out, I don’t think anyone is questioning the need to increase revenue for public transport. For all its virtues, the system needs billions spent on things like improved signalling, track upgrades and duplications, more train sets, new rail lines, improved security, and much more. Patronage has grown at around 5% p.a. and that increases costs. Indeed, spending more to improve the system is the key to sustaining increasing patronage.

So the issue is not about the need for more money, but rather about where it should come from i.e. who should pay. Additional revenue for higher capital and operating purposes can only come from a limited range of sources. The main possibilities are:

  • From passengers via fares;
  • From taxpayers generally (by foregoing expenditure elsewhere in the Transport portfolio or beyond);
  • From efficiency improvements e.g. reduced fare evasion, less restrictive work practices;
  • From the beneficiaries of the public transport system e.g. land value capture, levies on city centre businesses;
  • From other transport activities with undesirable side-effects e.g. congestion pricing; levy on car registration.

Each of these sources might be able to contribute something, but the revenue task is huge and there are practical and political limits to how much each can put in.

Fares are an important tool because they directly link supply and demand and they have history. Paying for service is a well established principle in public transport – there are very few public transport systems around the world that don’t charge fares.

Melbourne public transport users already get a pretty good deal – their fares recover none of the capital costs and only 44% of operating costs. Moreover, judged against some other cities, Melbourne’s fares aren’t especially high compared to the cost of providing the service (see exhibit).

The key market for the system is CBD workers who on average are reasonably well paid relative to their counterparts in other parts of the city. Further, a significant proportion of public transport users already benefit from concessional fares.

Those who argue that funding should come from general revenue rather than from passengers don’t always think about what would have to be foregone. They often implicitly imagine it would be at the expense of something they personally see as valueless or negative (new freeway construction is a common target).

But there’s nil guarantee of that. Any such decision would be made by the Government of the day according to its priorities and values. It might come at the expense of a very worthy transport project or it might come at the expense of another portfolio, perhaps a highly emotive one like education, health or community services. This attitude just shifts the problem to somewhere else where it might possibly impact others with less capacity than CBD workers.

In the short term – and this increase will take effect within four weeks – there are really only two choices: raise fares or fund the increase from elsewhere in the budget. In the longer term however there are possible alternatives to future fare increases. Read the rest of this entry »