Free Transit in France – Applicability to Other Transit Systems?

Châteauroux Bus. Image by Flickr user はにえる.

The Atlantic Cities recently published an excellent article which documents the success of free transit in the French city of Châteauroux. Since it was first implemented in 2001, this demonitized public transport system has experienced significant growth in ridership — from an average of 21 rides per person annually to 61 rides today.

More incredibly, this system actually became profitable for several years once it became free! And in the world of transit planning and policy, this fact alone is almost inconceivable.

So while this model is promising and many cities are following suit, it seems that the Châteauroux situation was unique in many ways. For instance, the municipality’s pre-free transit farebox recovery ratio was very low (14%) and nearly half its riders at that time were already fully subsidized. On top of that, the city expanded its network coverage by 42km, thus increasing its overall catchment area.

Given those statistics and facts, it may be difficult to replicate this model elsewhere, particularly in North America. A quick google search found that in Canada, none of the transit systems surveyed had farebox recovery ratios of less than 22%. And even in the US, where transit systems are often criticized for their large subsidies, most recover between 20-40% of their fares from tickets.

To further complicate matters, research in North America seems to suggest that many free transit systems tend to fail in the long run as they experience major challenges related to vandalism and hooliganism.

So does this automatically mean that this model is destined to fail in Canada and US?

Not quite. There have been several successful cases in the US such as Commerce, California and Island County, Washington — both of whom have operated relatively trouble-free for over 20 years.

But while those two instances are noteworthy, one of the most remarkable and least known free transit systems in the world is actually a gondola.

The Telluride/Mountain Village Gondola has been little-studied but has carried over 26 million passengers since it first opened in 1996.

Similar to the case in Châteauroux, the Telluride/Mountain Village Gondola model may not be applicable in all circumstances. However, given the success seen in Telluride and a growing movement/interest towards establishing zero-fare public transport systems, understanding how to implement and capitalize on CPT technology in free transit networks definitely deserve more attention and analysis.

Telluride Gondola transports 2.25 million passengers annually - that's almost a million more than the Portland Aerial Tram! Image by Flickr user Adrian P. Martin.

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Infrastructure Financing – Chicago Infrastructure Fund

Chicago is famous for a lot of things. Deep dish pizza, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama and CUP’s very own, Julia – just to name a few.

In terms of infrastructure construction, the city has also left its mark on the world with many impressive pieces of work. It boasts many accomplishments including: the first city to build a skyscraper; the world’s second busiest airport; the second oldest rapid transit system in the Americas and much more. However, like many large metropolitan cities in the US, the city has long been neglecting its infrastructure. While existing roads, buildings and bridges are all rapidly aging and crumbling, all levels of governments are unwilling to and/or incapable of investing more money into infrastructure.

For example in 2010, Chicago’s transit system had $7 billion in unfunded maintenance needs.

Despite being designed to run at 70 mph, some trains now must operate at 15 mph due to "fragile rails". Image by Flickr User ruffin_ready.

However, a ray of hope is now shining through. Under the leadership of the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a infrastructure finance instrument called the Chicago Infrastructure Trust (CIT) was recently developed and approved by council. With a fund of $7 billion, private investors will be able to submit proposals to the city. In turn, public officials will pick projects deemed the most worthy and match the private dollars offered.

Over the next years, other cities will be paying close attention to this financing tool. Undoubtedly, if proven successful, many officials will be eager to replicate and implement their own forms of the CIT in their city. Given the dearth of infrastructure investment in North America, this tool certainly looks promising and probably couldn’t have come at a better time.

For more information on CIT, please follow this link.

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Public Transit: Politics, Procurement Policy and Taxpayer Dollars

Lots of folks nowadays love local. Suppose someone asks you, “Do you support local produce? Or in this case, locally manufactured trains?” Many would probably answer “Yes”. But what if I told you this means it will cost an extra 10-15%, would your answer change?

A recent article in the Globe and Mail discusses the relationship between mass transit and political agendas. It appears that throughout the world high-stakes rail projects worth millions or even billions of dollars are becoming entangled in a struggle that pits the bottom line against local interests.

In this age of globalization, companies around the world are constantly looking to cut costs while maintaining quality and driving innovation. That is, except companies in the public transit industry.

In Canada, the provincial government of Ontario requires 25% Canadian content on all provincially financed transit infrastructure. These regulations, aimed at protecting and stimulating local jobs and economies, elicit both support and criticism. Already Siemens has lobbied the province to relax this policy. It argues that this legislation unfairly gives Bombardier the upper hand since it’s the only company capable of manufacturing rail vehicles in Canada. In essence, Bombardier is the only show in town and politicians know it (how’s that for competition?).

The question is therefore: is it fair to enact these type of regulations? More importantly, do they inhibit cost-savings and are governments getting the best deal for the taxpayers who ultimately fund transit projects?

Rational arguments exist on both sides of the coin and a consensus isn’t likely to be reached anytime soon. More often than not, policy is is influenced by current political agendas of the ruling party and the economic state of the region.

But now let us flip the story around and look to see what all of this means for CPT.

Although the world’s two main cable manufacturers are both involved in global distribution, for the most part their manufacturing tends to be concentrated. As these companies continue to increasingly serve the urban market they should look to existing legislation and practices for public transit manufacturing. Perhaps it isn’t too soon for them to consider further global expansion of their manufacturing facilities.

Larger manufacturing capabilities in several targeted geographic locations may very well give them the presence, exposure and political support needed to convince governments and citizens alike that cable manufacturers are truly serious about the needs of the local urban market.

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How Do You Eliminate Bribery? Make It Legal – By Steven Dale

It’s summer and I’m catching up on my reading and one of the most intriguing things I’ve read in a long time is a working paper by Kaushik Basu, the Chief Economic Adviser to the Ministry of Finance of the Government of India.

As everyone knows, India has a severe problem with bribery. Basu’s ingenious idea to curb the problem is (get ready for it) to make bribe-giving legal.

Bribe-taking, however, would remain illegal. Such an arrangement, Basu argues, would sever the incentive towards collusion that characterizes the act of bribery. Based on lessons learned from the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma game, the incidence of bribery should drop dramatically.

Basu admits the plan is not without its flaws, but his insightful and creative logic should give all policy-makers pause for contemplation.

You should read it. It’s not short, but it’s easy-reading and well worth the effort.

Too often our policy is tied up in morality. What should be right and what should be wrong. The idea that bribery should be made legal goes against all common intuition.

But if we agree as a society that bribery is something that should not be tolerated (and I doubt there’s anyone who would disagree with that position), then the end goal should be about ending bribery no matter the policy imperative that gets us there.

Yes it is absurdly ironic to make bribery legal in order to eliminate bribery. But so what? If it works, who cares?

All policy should be so creative, insightful and problem-oriented.

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