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The ACT government wants more Canberrans on public transport — could making it free be the answer?

ABC Business logoABC Business 2/05/2021
a train traveling down train tracks next to a tree: The COVID-19 pandemic has put the pinch on public transport patronage, causing a huge drop in use in Canberra.  (ABC News: Ian Cutmore) © Provided by ABC Business The COVID-19 pandemic has put the pinch on public transport patronage, causing a huge drop in use in Canberra.  (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Before COVID-19, the ACT government had to put on more light rail services to keep up with demand — hitting its 2021 passenger numbers target 12 months ahead of schedule.

Now it's concerned it could be years before passenger numbers return to pre-pandemic levels.

And with the ever-looming threat of a return of travel restrictions and health concerns due to the difficulty of social distancing on a crowded bus or light rail vehicle, how does the government get Canberrans back on board?

New ticketing system to give passengers real-time information

Now the ACT government has released a Transport Recovery Plan aimed at restoring community confidence in the network and adapting to the "new normal".

Transport Minister Chris Steel said even with patronage numbers having climbed to around 77 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, there had been serious flow-on impacts to the broader road transport network.

"As a result of having less people using public transport, we're now seeing congestion on our roads up 3 per cent across the ACT and in parts of Woden it's up 8 per cent, so this is something that we really need to tackle," he said. 

"The advice is still to avoid public transport during peak hours, so we're actually not at the point where we can get people back on public transport.

"We need to explore a range of other strategies looking at how we can encourage people to travel in the off-peak times."

To help do that, part of the plan involves pushing ahead with procurement of a new ticketing system to replace MyWay.

Mr Steel said that as well as having the ability for passengers to tap on using a credit card and manage an account linked to a card, it would include a customer information system accessed through an app or a website.

"They can know more information about how many people are riding on public transport, is the light rail vehicle full that they're about to catch," he said. 

"So they can make better decisions for their health and make sure they're safe in the future as well."

Negotiations with a preferred provider for the new system fell through in January, and market sounding for a new tenderer closes on May 14.

But rolling out a new system isn't likely to be cheap.

So, what if there weren't any tickets at all?

Luxembourg offers case for free transport

With a swelling population and the highest number of passenger cars per inhabitant in Europe, the tiny nation of Luxembourg last year became the first jurisdiction in the world to make public transport free.

The country's Mobility Minister François Bausch said they had adapted their transport strategy to focus on "moving people and not moving vehicles".

Mr Bausch pointed to statistics from the United Nations which project that by 2050, 68 per cent of the world's population will be living in urban areas.

"We have to change for that, so that it is really liveable," Mr Bausch said.

"Mobility is a public service that the society has to offer to everybody, and everybody in the same way, because otherwise you will have more segregation in the society."

But Luxembourg's ticket-free system isn't without costs.

The Grand Duchy will lose 41 million euros ($64m) in annual ticket revenue, but that's just a fraction of the total network running costs of more than 500 million euros.

"It makes no sense to make the public transport free if you don't have a strategy and an investment program to improve the quality and the offer of the public transport," Mr Bausch said.

Free transport in Canberra 'an aspirational goal'

Mr Steel said the ACT government was interested in how jurisdictions around the world tried to attract new public transport users, though for now he ruled out a move away from tickets.

At the ACT Labor Party's 2019 annual conference, the party's members voted in favour of a motion to make public transport free for students.

But Mr Steel said it was an aspirational goal.

"Student numbers using public transport have bounced back remarkably — almost to the same level as it was prior to the pandemic," he said. 

"It's the rest of the passengers across our transport system where we've seen a real drop. 

"One of the downsides is not having the revenue being able to be reinvested in the public transport system.

Public Transport Association of Canberra chair Ryan Hemsley agreed it was not the right approach for improving patronage. 

"If there is money in the budget to make public transport free — there's money available to make public transport better," he said.

"A bus that comes once an hour and is free is not as attractive for potential passengers as one every 15 minutes."

Mr Hemsley said users would be happy to continue to pay using a new ticketing system, provided it worked.

"The most important thing is that it's reliable and people are able to use it to get to where they need to go," he said. 

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