I recently had the unique opportunity to meet with two ministers in India and dicuss different aspects of public transportation and buses in general.
Our lengthy dicussions produced many different insights into the topic. Here is what I discovered…
Politicians have the responsibility to act on behalf of all citizens. All citizens pay tax in one way or another, be it by Value Added Tax (VAT) on purchases or from a percentage of your salary. From a taxpayers perspective, the public use of money is a matter of realizing that value.
According to the first minister, “when we spend public money on roads for cars, the majority of the voters will not be able to receive a direct benefit from the investment”.
In India, most citizens don’t actually own cars, which means that benefits received from building highways for cars is limited. However, in many cities the congestion is severe and all travelers (on bikes, two wheelers, three wheelers, cars or buses) would benefit from less congestion.
According to the second minister, “visibility of the benefits received by society is essential for investments in infrastructure”.
If we build a high speed train between two major cities very few citizens will be able to afford the travel even if it would be heavily subsidized.”
Where we see a clear economic benefit but weak benefits for the citizens, there would be good opportunities for the private sector.”
I thought of this discussion after watching an excellent TED seminar by Enrico Peñalosa, “Why buses represent democracy in action”.
In short, the seminar discusses how public financing of cost efficient public transport is actually more democratic from a citizen’s perspective. It is interesting to find that there is a lot of similarities between both the reasoning of the Indian ministers and Mr. Peñalosa from Latin America.
A very different example of public transport is found in Jungfraubahn, in Switzerland. The railway was inaugurated in 1912 as a private investment, and has later been extended to include further rail and ski lifts in the valley.
Tourists pay 177 CHF per journey (a two way ticket). With a profit of 26 million CHF in 2012 (according to the home page), the investment has paid off. This is a good example of a railway that is not sponsored by taxpayers even when the amount of people using this mode of transport is relatively limited. Most of us can agree that Jungfraubahn does not require public subsidies.
I have been searching for an adequate measure to describe the degree of benefit citizens receive from investments in public transport, but have not come up with one so far. This is certainly a topic that would be of interest all over the world.