Managing transport expectations

While the move is reasonable, the latest public transport fare increase is at odds with the lower costs being enjoyed by private motorists as a result of the oil price plunge of nearly 60 per cent since June. However the hike is explained to bus and rail commuters, it is that asymmetry that will likely stick in the craw.

Nor will it be the only one to have that effect down the road. Neat solutions can prove elusive when policies shaping the public transport system are obliged to strike a balance among different stakeholders and to cushion the impact of market gyrations. An example is the moderation of public fare revisions to avoid a big jump in a single year. In the latest round, part of last year's increase that was held back had to be taken into account now.

Such trade-offs are a necessary part of all reviews but there's no assurance these will be accepted pragmatically if there are persistent gaps in public perception. Fare affordability, for example, is a sore spot, especially when public transport companies are believed to offer their shareholders millions of dollars in dividends a year. The traditional argument to justify the profits of the companies is that these will induce private enterprises to make massive investments in hardware and to run operations efficiently and productively. But even while commuters cannot fault the logic of the bargain, it still chafes to have to pay extra dollars which add to the bottom lines of operators.

Perceptions that grate might well be an inevitable part of all public transport systems, whether private, nationalised, non-profit or hybrid (like a contracting model). Hence it would be politic to manage expectations, whether relating to routes, frequency, travel speed, connectivity or comfort. All such factors exact a cost which must be spread equitably among users, operators, and the state. Since costs can't be borne equally by all commuters, fare concessions will be necessary for the needy, senior citizens and students. Agreement on the distribution of costs and benefits must be based on a strategic framework that has widespread public support.

A key goal of a masterplan must be to make public transport the primary travel mode - a necessity dictated by space constraints and low carbon targets. This in turn calls for reliable, efficient service that at least three-quarters of all commuters can tap effortlessly round the clock, and especially during peak hours. This needs to happen to make necessary curbs on car ownership palatable.

Importantly, the appeal and convenience of public transportation must be sustainable and not collapse under the weight of ever-growing demands or unrealistic promises that could take citizens for a ride in the worst possible sense.