Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Buses are not coffee: infrastructure and the neoliberal agenda

"Cities that see transit systems as a mere pretext for economic development are bound for some sort of disappointment, no matter the monetary gain." *

Infrastructure is a public service.

Providing a network of heat, light and power, of communications, of transit.

These are the basic functionalities needed for a population. It allows communities to thrive. it is the underpinning of a civilisation.

And yet, our governance and economic systems insist on making them goods and services that are up for grabs. for the operation of a transit system to be subject to market forces, while the operators bear no responsibility for the provision of the physical asset of track. Or with pipes and gas bill generating companies. or with comms providors and a network of phone cables and the installation of fibre optic.

I get it. I really do get it. The theory behind abolishing a monopoly makes perfect sense. You see a way to create consumer choice, which according to the laws of supply and demand will improve efficiency and drive down the costs to the ultimate customers. And at the same time you get to make a profit for shareholders. You look and think, excellent, a win-win situation.

But what about if you dig a little deeper...?

A cohesive and cost-effective bus service for a city region is one that uses profitable routes to subsidise less profitable ones. This is a public service, to create mobility and accessibility for the whole of the public. I am not a bus customer. I am a bus passenger.

Say you live out in the sticks. Maybe you're old or infirm. Maybe you don't drive. Or you just don't want to pay for parking at your destination. So you want to take the bus. Chances are the bus service is infrequent. The bus itself is old. There is no bus home after 8pm. This route is not profitable, but there is a small provision that says it has to run as a subsidised route. The transport executive makes sure it happens, but the market fails and so the state intervenes.

Or maybe you don't. Maybe you live in a city area with lots of car-less people, high demand for buses to the city centre. This sounds great - it sounds like a profitable route, and the bus companies can all compete on this route. They can factor in cleanliness, reliability, wifi, all to get your custom. You get the service you want, and the competition means it will be at the price you want. Right?


Bus company 1 has free wifi on board. You expect to sit in traffic at rush hour but suddently that time is productive - hooray. But the price is £5.90 for a single ticket, or £6 for a day saver.

Company 2 can offer a day saver for £1. Much better. But they stop running at 11am. So to get home you need to go with company 1, meaning you still have to pay again.

You need to go on somewhere else after work? Another bus company runs that route, so that's another ticket to buy. How do you enjoy standing at a bus stop while 3 buses go past? They all go by your house, but your ticket isn't valid on those services.

You think to yourself: "This is daft - why can't I just buy one day saver for the whole of the city?" You want to have flexibility of bus, of route, of what you do after work. Y can change plans at short notice and not end up out of pocket as a result. 

Transport provision should be there to support and underpin decisions about when and where to move. It shouldn't dictate them.

But, outside of London, bus companies do not operate cross-ticketing schemes. Or if they do, they're extremely limited and usually expensive and complicated to understand. In fact, in a true open market, competition-driven world, a cross ticketing scheme could even fall under the heading of price fixing and cartels. It is at odds with the concept of competitive bus operators.

Let's stop for a minute, and think about coffee... 

Maybe where you live there are lots of independent coffee shops all vying to sell you the best bean-to-cup experience. You don't need to drink coffee (Or, at least, it doesn't feature as a survival requirement at the base of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs).

These coffee shops are trying to get you to shop with them. They appeal to different priorities. For some people, the only consideration is price, and price alone. Some people are going to want somewhere with an atmosphere where they enjoy spending time. Free wifi for the freelancers. Or no wifi to avoid them. Maybe you actually just drink coffee at home to meet your incredibly specific brewing preferences. Whatever. There is choice there, and that means that you as a consumer get a range of businesses catering to your particular niche. Cool. You do you.

But you know what you can't choose? You can't choose to go to a different destination because you prefer that bus service. 

If you live at A and you work at B and you need to get to shops and services at C then it's no use if bus company 1 has wifi and bus company 2 offers a cheap day saver ticket if they only run between Point D and E. Those are not useful to you. You are stuck with bus company 3, whether you like it or not.

Competition between these service providers is a lie. 

People do not think "I want to take a bus, what route and provider do I feel like using today"**. Your real competition is driving, walking and cycling.

Buses are not coffee.

I understand that nationalised services perhaps were not always efficient. That they got big and creaky and slow. There is a good argument to be made that change had to happen. But to say that privatisation was the only logical change? Specifically that creating competition was essential? That decision was purely ideological.

The Eastcoast rail franchise had to step in and run trains on the East Coast Mainline after National Express failed to deliver the required service. It was under public ownership. It ran well, it made a profit, passengers were largely satisfied. ...And then it was sold to Virgin Trains.

That decison was not financial. Nor was it about creating efficiency, or about stopping beauracracy in its tracks. It was purely an ideological choice that train companies should be run privately.

Trains are also not coffee. 

Trains are even less open to competition than buses. A bus can at least run wherever there are roads. Trains can only go where the track dictates. And specific routes and services are franchised for large blocks of time, under tight regulation and restriction and government control.

I can choose to have my home internet connection through cable, and therefore be tied to VirginMedia, or through the phone line, and have slightly more choice in providers. But ultimately my broadband speed is dictated by the type of connection and my distance from the exchange. The line rental portion of my bill is fixed by BT. Broadband is not coffee.

When I change my electricity or gas supplier, the electricity and gas that comes through the wires and pipes is no different. All I am really doing is agreeing who I want to receive my bill from. The wholesale price of energy is a complex market system but it isn't really in any way linked to the consumer and what they receive.

Utilities are not coffee.

Although, if someone wants to install an infrastructure system to deliver high quality coffee directily from a tap in my kitchen, then maybe we can talk...


*Quote from: http://www.citylab.com/work/2013/09/surprising-key-making-transit-oriented-development-work/6992/

**People in general, in my experience. I accept that there are some bus enthusiasts or urban explorers who might do this occasionally.