Public versus Private Transport

I was pondering the other day whether it’s still helpful to categorise transport into either “private” or”public”.

When you say “public transport” people immediately envisage buses, trains and ferries. When you say “private transport” people immediately think cars. But the split is not as clean as that.

“Public transport” services are funded roughly 25% through rates (public), 50% privately (through fares) and 25% through fuel excise (its arguable whether this should be considered public or private). The vehicles are all owned and operated by private companies, who are contracted to Councils. The roads they run on are public land which is paid for by a mixture of rates (public) and fuel-excise (I’d argue this is a user-charge so should be seen as private funding). The whole setup is overseen and administered by public organisations.

“Private transport” vehicles are paid for 100% privately. The roads they drive and park on are public land which is paid for by a mixture of rates (public) and fuel-excise (I’d argue this is a user-charge so should be seen as private funding). The whole setup is again overseen and administered by public organisations.

Walking and biking is hazy. Some people see these as “private transport” for similar reasons to cars – although they run on public roads, the service itself (bicycle or pair of sneakers) is privately owned and operated. But for some people, the fact they don’t pay any charges to use the roads makes them “public transport” – whenever you see a Stuff Commenter complaining that “bloody cyclists don’t pay fuel tax!” that’s what they are doing.

I wonder if these terms have run past their use-by date. They encourage ideological splits. Right-wing parties intuitively think the one with “private” in the name should be their thing, while left-wing parties think the one with “public” in the name should be their thing. But that’s not the case. Buses and trains have certain advantages that should be exploited in situations that warrant them, e.g. where you want to shift big volumes of people using as little space as possible. Cars have other advantages that make them preferable in some situations e.g. where you are shifting hardly anybody and you have heaps of space to do it in. Whether the mode has been categorised as public or private is irrelevant and shouldn’t be a consideration.

I’m starting to think we should just call cars “cars”, buses “buses” and trains “trains”, and not put labels on whether we think they’re public or private.

2 thoughts on “Public versus Private Transport

  1. It gets even hazier when you think of the wider range of transport options out there today. I did an undergrad lecture earlier this year on public transport and I made the point that the traditional view of what constitutes “public transport” (e.g. fixed routes/schedules, owned by other organisations) is no longer the same. When I plotted on 2D axes of “who owns it” vs “how many people do you travel with” then you start to also consider where the likes of bike/scooter share (eg Lime), rideshare (eg Uber), carshare (eg Zilch) and a host of other services are in the scheme of things.

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  2. No, the split is important.

    We should be, within reason, ideally be pricing transport as efficiently as possible based on where the costs are & where the socioeconomic benefits fall.

    Ideally:
    1) private users should pay their full costs (including externalities) & then
    2) public funding, which comes from private users, goes to providing:
    a) consumer surplus excluding externalities
    b) mitigating externalities

    3) Providing limited cross subsidies for, say, PT where there are net socioeconomic benefits to providing access to transport for those without transport alternatives. In this case the funding should come taxpayers as it is a wider socioeconomic benefit.

    Car drivers are currently heavily subsidised by ratepayers and through the non mitigation of externalities. I dont see how ratepayers get 50% of the benefit of a road when 70% of the space is carriageway for cars & parking & cyclists have to share it very unsafely.

    “bloody cyclists don’t pay fuel tax!” – The cyclists will at least be ratepayers & thus do pay.

    Transport cost allocation in NZ needs a review & update.

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