TransLink go card: I’m ahead

The TransLink go card system is broken, but not for the reasons Ben points out, or at least not mainly for that reason. It’s broken because the machines are too often not working (on the buses, anyway). That means that I, and thousands of other passengers each day, score free trips. Already this week, I’ve had three or four free trips because the machine was not functional, and the bus drivers simply waved me onto the bus. While I’ve been pinged a couple of times for forgetting to swipe off, or because the machine has stopped working sometime during a trip, I calculate that I’m well ahead, probably by around $30 since the inception of the go card system.

The system is also pretty easy to game if you’re travelling on the bus: touch on at the front door like a good little passenger, then touch off at the rear door as you walk down the aisle. That will charge you a one zone fare (I think) instead of the two, three, four, whatever zone fare you would have to pay if you did the right thing and touched off when you hop off the bus. Of course, I don’t do this and I don’t condone it.

All this raises a very interesting question, though. When does the city’s/state’s investment in the go card system, and the ticketing system as a whole, start to pay off? Apparently the go card system alone costed around US$95 million. My question is whether it wouldn’t be better to just remove all ticketing infrastructure and make public transport free. At least until Brisbane’s population is big enough to support a world-class public transport system. Let’s do a really naive analysis. Assume that the US and Australian currencies have reached parity. At an average of $3 a journey (adult 4 zones fare), it would need around 30,700,000 journeys to break even. With 70,000 go cards in circulation, that’s probably around a year’s worth of go card journeys. That mightn’t seem like much, but the maintenance costs will be ongoing, and, as pointed out above, a significant proportion of journeys are unpaid for. Furthermore, the US$95 million does not include the overheads for all the other kinds of ticketing, like paper tickets. Factor in the costs of employees to dole out tickets at train stations, process go card complaints, and so on, and you could be looking at tens of millions per year (at a guess).

Readers would know that my bleeding heart leftist tendencies have long been replaced by a leaning towards free market capitalism. So it may seem strange that I’m advocating free public transport. But the fact of the matter is that our public transport system is already subsidised, and it will probably stay that way for quite some time. So why add another layer of costs to a system that has to be subsidised anyway? It doesn’t seem to make business sense. Of course, I’m on the outside looking in. I have no idea of true costs, or the expected population growth of Brisbane City. But I reckon it would be a good way to get people using public transport. The only problem is, these ticketing systems are already in place; we’ve paid the upfront costs already, so I guess the government has to try to recoup these costs, and it won’t do that by making public transport free. D’oh!