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Mark Tier, Quadrant, September, 1975, pp. 93-96.

If you have nothing to do for a day, it is really quite an experience to stand on a street corner in Sydney and watch the buses go by. If you stand at Circular Quay or near Central or Wynyard, you’ll sometimes see a man with a clipboard who starts the buses off on their treks through the City of Sydney and suburbs. If you stand anywhere else — particularly at a bus-stop, and you want to catch a bus — be surprised if the bus arrives at the stop at the time that is on the timetable.

Wisely, the NSW Transport Commission has placed timetables at very few bus-stops outside the City area. (Inside the City area, timetables are only posted for buses leaving the city for the suburbs.) Where they have placed timetables, these are very difficult to interpret.

Perhaps, though, they don’t put up timetables because they know that everybody knows that the timetables are irrelevant to the progress of buses through the crowded streets of Sydney.

At the suburban end of the bus routes, the function of the man with the clip-board is performed by the bus’ driver. It is not uncommon to see buses sitting at their route’s end for up to fifteen minutes. The fact that they have completed their route much faster than they would have had they followed their Sydney buses timetable.

Such underutilisation is a common sight. Standing on your imaginary street corner, you would often see two buses, one behind the other, each with ten passengers or so, following exactly the same route. They are supposed to be running 20 minutes apart. Some drivers quite like this arrangement. The front bus stops at a bus-stop, while the second bus passes by and takes the next one. They call this “leapfrogging” and it makes the job so much easier. They don’t have to stop and start so often, you see.

Which, of course, makes a further mockery of the timetable.

Along with almost all other government owned transport operations, the buses run at enormous losses, nobody knows when to expect them and the capital equipment is underutilised.

Governments the world over have common reactions to mounting losses: raise the price, cut the service, cut out all the “non-essential” costs. Strangely, the losses do not go away. They often get worse. The next step is to try and force people to use buses or trains. This is what they’ve tried in Canberra. By restricting parking spaces in the city centre, closing some of the streets off to cars, putting in parking meters and so on, the bureaucrats hoped to force their fellows to use the bus service. In Canberra, the only people who use the buses are those who can’t afford to own cars. There is a very good reason for that: the bus service is virtually non-existent. People still drive their cars to the city, as there is no viable choice. They just grumble as well now.

Governments also have a strange attitude to the “services” they provide. Advertising, for example, is a very non-essential expense to the NSW Transport Commission. (This is literally true, of course, as not even the world’s best advertising man could sell the Sydney bus service. But they do spend a little bit of money on advertising: there has been a recent campaign on Sydney radio telling the public how nice the Commission is because it didn’t raise the fares as much as everyone expected! How to win friends and influence people.) This attitude takes the form: well, it’s there, why don’t you use it? It’s a government service after all — why should we tell you about it? It’s hardly surprising that whenever the fares go up, passengers drop off and road traffic increases.

In moments of extreme cynicism, I even wonder whether the peak hour services make a profit — when it seems that every bus that ever came into Sydney is packed to the gills.

Only two statements really need to be made about the public transport mess that exists the world over:

  1. No government will ever solve it; (government is the problem, not the solution); and,
  2. No-one in Australia has yet asked what the real problem is (to my knowledge).

The real problem is what do people want? Governments answer this question with transportation systems. People spend their time drawing lovely networks of bus, tram and train routes all over the country. Any such central planning system is bound to fail, because it simply cannot take account of individual desires.

The government transport planner is handicapped, before he starts. He never asks: what do people want? He asks: how can I design a bus (or train or taxi or hire-car or Dial-a-Bus) system that will transport people? The assumption which is implicit in his question is: that people are going to get buses (or trains or taxis or whatever), whether they like it or not. His task is to find a way to make a particular system work. A private enterprise operation, of course, asks essentially the same question — but there is one significant difference: he does not have the power to impose his desired systems on the public. If people do not like what he is offering, they will go elsewhere. But the government ensures that the people have no choice.

A second aspect is more fundamental. No person — government planner or anyone else — is capable or designing a complete transport system. Try it yourself: you have the power to impose any system you choose on the people of your city. You have to design a system which will meet the following specifications:

  1. It will provide exactly the amount of transportation of all types that the people desire, given their preferences as between transport and all the other possible activities, good and services (including leisure) that they could enjoy; and given the total resources of the community; and,
  2. It will provide exactly the right amount of different forms of transportation (buses, trains, taxis, hire cars, mini-buses, jitneys, helicopters, Dial-a-Buses, etc) given the same condition as No. 1 (though in this case you must consider people’s preferences as between different forms of transport).

While you mull over the problem, consider that there are getting close to three million people in Sydney, and if you were taking Sydney as your example, you will have to determine precisely what each of those people want.

Secondly, consider that in Canberra, this is exactly what they say they’ve been trying to do (and there are only 150,000 people there, and all the loot in the world to play with). But they certainly haven’t specified the requirements of their “system” in that way.

It can’t be done. I state that categorically: no one person, and no group of people (short of the three million), and no matter how many computers and paraphernalia they’ve got at their disposal — they will be unable to even approximate what every individual person, no matter how poor, stupid, or mentally retarded, does best for himself. That is: decide what he wants. Next time you see your best friend, try and predict how he will spend his money, how he will apportion his time, what his preferences will be tomorrow. If you can’t do it for the people you know best, how can you do it for the people you don’t know at all? And more to the point: how can the government planners do it for you?

They can’t. And they don’t. And they don’t even try.

Consider what happened after the Hobart bridge disaster: the very next morning private enterprise was offering ferries across the river. Some months later, the Tasmanian government bought what turned out to be a rotting hulk from the NSW government. Meanwhile, private enterprise operators have ordered two new ferries which are being built in Hobart. Who’s really interested in serving the public? Private enterprise? Or a government which can’t discriminate between a boat and a hulk? (And is putting all sorts of obstacles in the way of private operators.)

One Sydney private bus operator (one of the few left by merciful government) has to take his airline-style seats out of his bus and replace them with government-specification-style seating in order to get his licence renewed each year. Who’s really interested in serving the public? (On top of that, the private bus lines actually make profits, compared to the government’s whopping annual loss — even though the government has ensured that it has monopolised to itself all the best routes — the most profitable — the most densely-traveled — as well as putting all manner of obstacles in the way of private operators.)

The answer to the “insoluble” problem above does exist. It consists of answering the question: what do people want when it comes to transport?

The key to the answer will come when we first of all realise something that people do not want: people do not want transportation systems. I do not mean that people, individually, do not desire the existence of a system of transportation. I mean that no person, as a consumer of transport, ever consumes “transportation systems”. Never. Not even the government planner. When you buy a bus, tram, train — or airline — ticket, what are you buying? What interest do you have in the carrier?

Let’s put it this way: when you buy a 10c stamp (soon to be more) are you interested in the Post Office as such? No. All you are interested in is a particular service — getting your letter from A to B. That’s what you are paying 10c for. Certainly, you do have an interest in the Post Office — more precisely, it is in your interest that there by some organisation which offers postal services. That need not be the Post Office as such. (Ever notice that Post Offices are always conveniently located where it is impossible to get a parking space? Perhaps they’re interested in serving the public too.)

Certainly, it is in your interest that there be a transportation system — a multiplicity of such systems. But a consumer of transport consumers journeys — individual journeys. In a big city especially, it is rare that even half a dozen people are going from the same place to the same place — together. Ones, twos and families would be the overwhelming majority of units. A small percentage, maybe not even as high as 10%, would be units of more than two unrelated people.

What people desire — and have always desired — is greater satisfaction. In the field of transport, that means greater convenience, speed, economy and comfort. (I not trying to impute the preferences of other people. It is simply an observation that in general people do make choices in those directions. Of course, I may be wrong. One of the factors, such as speed, may be so important as to outweigh the others.)

Of the choices of transport that are already available, none of them really fare very well compared to what is potentially available. Buses, trams and trains all offer mass transport. They can only operate profitably when many people want to go between roughly the same As and Bs. There is an economic limit to the services these forms of transport can offer, and this is well above the type of individual satisfaction that many people seek to enjoy. And since the major cities of the world tend to be centralised —with all the activity in the centre of a large suburbia — the economies of mass transport fall off the further one proceeds from the centre.

In many outer suburbs, the only way to get from one suburb to another relatively cheaply is by going towards the centre and then back out again. Further complicating the problem of mass transport is the rush hour. As governments see themselves as offering services rather than making profits, rather than raising prices during peak hours to cut back demand — and therefore optimise capital utilisation (which in English means that all the buses and would be running economically all the time) — they increase supply during these periods. Meaning that half the buses and carriages sit about earning no money most of the time.

The peak hour rush as such is the product of two other factors: one that governments coercively restrict shopping and business hours in between 9 and 5 (Sydney has Thursday night shopping — which results in much higher custom for buses and trains that night of the week) so that people have little choice bit to travel during peak hours; and second that people demonstrably prefer individualised transport. For travelling to and from work, mass transport is preferable because of the problems of parking, and the fact that movement is predictable. At night, the car is preferred because of the freedom of movement, and unpredictably, that it provides.

The car stands at the other end of the spectrum from mass transport. There is no better A to B travel; no delays; and whatever comfort you decide on. There are obvious inconveniences, such as parking and traffic. But people will brave these because of the other advantages. Even during the day. In fact, in Sydney, as the fares go up, the demand for mass transportation goes down, and road traffic (and therefore congestion) increases. The inconvenience of the car in some people’s valuations is outweighed by direct A-to-B movement, and relative costs.

But the car has obvious disadvantages — not just from the government planner’s or environmentalist’s point of view, but from the individual’s. Wouldn’t many people prefer, as an alternative to both mass transport and their own cars, a “system” of point-to-point movement, which didn’t involve them in taking their own cars, or waiting at mass pick-up points?

What about the taxi? Isn’t that what I’m talking about? On all points except one: economy. Taxis are simply too expensive. Their price varies from city to city. Sydney taxis are relatively cheap and abundant; Melbourne taxis are very expensive, and difficult to come by. There are a number of reasons for this — it is much easier to use one’s own car in Melbourne; and Melbourne’s taxis are more restrictively regulated.

Car. Taxi. Bus/Tram. Train. It is not a very smooth transition from the highly individualised transport to the mass. And in attempts to bolster their continually falling mass transport systems, governments eliminate competition from anything else, except the taxi and the car, including competing bus lines; stifle the taxi; and try to coerce (rather than persuade) people (gently) out of their cars.

As another rule of thumb, I’ve discovered that generally people do not like to be pushed around, even with kid gloves. Persuasion is much more effective; but then we are back to where we started: government transport is basically an unsaleable proposition.

Is there any alternative to the “insoluble” problem — something that would give what they want, reduce traffic congestion, reduce the demand for parking spaces — and even reduce the total number of cars on the road?

There is, in fact, an almost infinite number of alternatives — as many alternatives as there are people. For their success, however, all these alternatives come back to one single problem: governments must cease regulation of transport in cities (and elsewhere will they are at it), eliminate their monopolies, and sell of all their buses, trains, trams (and the Post Office too, please!).

Let’s see what would result. First, the government would take a significant capital loss. Hardly unexpected. From then on, however, the government would make a considerable profit from its “involvement” in public transport — from the registration fees on all those private buses.

Who would they sell the buses to? I would estimate that demand the bus-transport would be cut in about half in a free market, restricted more to urban routes.

Of course, were, say, the current NSW government to try this, the unions would be out in a flash. Clearly, the current drivers and operators of the buses would be the best people to own and operate private bus lines. As buses would decline, not all current employees could find employment here, but there would be plenty of opportunity in other transport areas that would blossom.

I think Melbourne’s trams would decline, though not disappear altogether. They are much less flexible than buses, and need to be owned as a unit rather than individually, as can happen with buses.

As for trains — you’ll have to take my word that I could run Sydney’s suburban railways at a fantastic profit. I will offer my scheme to the successful purchaser for a mere 10% of the profits. I am certain this would work in Melbourne and other capital cities. I’ll let you in to part of the secret: it would require being “allowed” to put the Post Office out of business.

Taxis represent a political problem. As government restricts entry by licencing, taxis are a sort of oligopoly. They earn higher than average profits, and those “excess” profits are capitalised into the price of a taxi plate — up to $20,000. Since nearly all taxi owners have purchased in to the oligopoly, the government would certainly feel politically obliged to reimburse the owners some portion of their investment. It could use the proceeds from the sale of buses and trains.

10% on $20,000 is $2,000 per year — or about $40 per week. That is somewhere between two and four cents per mile, depending on the miles travelled per week. That is part of the current cost to the taxi-using public of government intervention. But with free entry, (though I imagine that a government could not resist the temptation to limit entry marginally by the issue of taxi-driver’s licences) the competition for the initial period would be cut-throat. As all you need is a car, and a sign saying “taxi”, everyone could join in. Particularly, students, housewives, pensioners and the otherwise unemployed would find taxis a handy source of income. This would serve two important purposes:

  1. Taxis would regulate the whole price structure of public transport. As soon as other forms of transport became too expensive, people would progressively switch to taxis. Taxi prices could not rise very much, since as soon as there was an increase in demand for taxis, all the marginal operators (e.g. students, housewives) would stream into the market and keep the prices down. Thus, other forms of transport would suffer a net loss in income, and have to cut their prices or go out of business.
  2. After an initial period — well, chaos — marginal operators who might go out each morning or afternoon for a few hours for “pocket-money” would serve to even out “peak” periods. At any time of the day, there would be very little problem problem in finding quick and easy transport.

An important overall change would take place. Present radio-operated taxi-companies would probably charge more than the marginal people because they would have a reputation, strengthened by advertising. Seeing a “Yellow Cab” on the street would mean something other than simply being a car painted so that it looks like a cab instead of a car. Also with buses. Timetables would be everywhere, and mean something. However, even if a single owner arose, of all buses in one area, he would always face competition from taxis — and could not exclude other bus lines in order to raise his fares. As the government can.

A totally new form of transport would arise. The Jitney, or Jeepney. This is really a grab-bag term for everything between taxis that cannot multiple-hire, and buses. Here are some of the possibilities:

Multiple-hire taxis: Why does the government not allow multiple-hiring? Because it would cheapen taxis to the public and threaten bus-custom. If a cab costs two dollars and you and I are both going the same way, it is clearly cheaper for both of us to pay $1.40 — and the driver is 80c better off. Everyone wins.

Taxi-Jitneys: Anything from a Kombi up. This would not operate on a fixed route, but would, say, have a little electric sign up front that the driver could change by punching a panel in front of him. Say I was in Parkville, and happened to phone for a jitney to go to Kew, there might be one passing nearby that was on its way to Carlton. He’d change the sign from Carlton to Kew, dropping and picking up passengers along the way. You might be standing on the corner (quite a different corner!) wanting to go to North Balwyn. You would flag him down, he’d change the sign again, and so on. I have no idea what the fare would be. It might be a flat 50c; 50c for five miles and a dollar for further. One thing I do know: it would be cheaper than taxis, and more expensive than buses, and take eight passengers or so.

Fixed-Route Jitneys: The mind boggles. They could be any size, serving all kinds of routes, some in competition with buses; some which are not served now at all. Like between the outer suburbs. Like circle routes around the city centres. Like express services between major suburban shopping centres. The optimum size would vary with the route, but the majority of jitneys would be in the range 15-25 passengers. Just enough for one man to handle the driving and far collections without having to stop for very long at stops. How would route numbers be standardised when anyone could enter? Simply by adopting existing government route numbers; and expanding them as necessary.

It is conceivable that along trunk routes, buses as such could disappear altogether. (Meaning that buses would disappear altogether.) Instead of having one bus come by every 20 or 30 minutes, a jitney would pass every one or two. There would never be any wait — between 5 am and 2 am — along major routes.

Jitneys do operate in many Asian and South American cities. But also in the U.S. Though very restricted today.

The first American jitneys probably appeared in Los Angeles about 1914. These so-called “five-cent cars” — jitney meaning a nickel, hence the term — rapidly became popular and their use spread throughout the United States. Their great popularity and high patronage has been attributed to a number of reasons, among them: the desire to ride a high status vehicle, the desire for a faster ride than provided by the trolley, the desire to go to destinations not served by fixed-rail trolley. A most telling point is that although the jitney charged about the same fare as the trolley, the total earnings of the jitneys were found to be considerably in excess of what the trolley lost to them. Clearly, the jitney provided a flexible and convenient service demanded by riders but not provided by the trolleys. [Sandi Rosenbloom, “Taxis and Jitneys, the Case for Deregulation,” Reason, February, 1972, p. 5.]

Also in the U.S., Washington D.C. has no restrictions on taxis. The result: the highest number of taxis per 1000 population of any city in the U.S. 10.2, compared with 2.3 per 1000 for the highest regulation city: Boston.

Those are only some of the possibilities that might arise in a free market for transport in Australian cities. Though I know Sydney and Canberra best, I refuse to make any firm prediction as to what actually would arise. I know a very small percentage of the populations of each city — few of them well enough to even attempt to predict what they might do. And I wouldn’t sell my car — as I derive a consumption value from driving it. But I would certainly leave it home more often. Wouldn’t you?