Why does PTV hate students?

One of the big policies at this year’s student elections was a promise to expand the free tram zone, championed by the Rebuild ticket. It was an ambitious proposal that raised eyebrows and raised questions (namely, “how do you plan to do that?”), but it got at something that students care about: the fact that our public transport system does not work for us.


One of the big policies at this year’s student elections was a promise to expand the free tram zone, championed by the Rebuild ticket. It was an ambitious proposal that raised eyebrows and raised questions (namely, “how do you plan to do that?”), but it got at something that students care about: the fact that our public transport system does not work for us.

Consider the free tram zone: everyone loves being able to get around the CBD without worrying about fares, but whom does it benefit the most? Not tourists, because there’s plenty outside of the CBD, they’ll be wanting to see. Not people who live in the city because work, school and leisure will similarly be taking them outside of the CBD. Not those who commute in from the suburbs because they've already reached their daily fare cap. The people who do benefit are those who drive and park in the city, and now get to tram around the city for free on the taxpayer’s dollar while not meaningfully reducing their car usage. This aligns with overseas data, which indicates that free public transport tends to attract walkers and cyclists rather than motorists—an undesirable policy outcome as it incentivises a less healthy form of travel while failing to compete with car usage, a form of travel that is both bad for the environment and favoured by the wealthier.

We don’t have solid demographic data on where all of Melbourne University’s students live, but we do know that there are 30,900 students that live and study in the City of Melbourne municipality. There’s only a handful of small campuses in the CBD, so a majority of these students are likely making their way to larger universities such as the University of Melbourne or RMIT, that fall north of the free tram zone, or to campuses elsewhere. That’s tens of thousands of students who then have to pay to get to campus on weekdays—definitely not reaping the benefits of that free tram zone despite living in it. That’s excluding the vast majority of students who have to pay the fares regardless because they live outside the free tram zone.

It might not be too bad if concession Mykis were freely available to all students. They’re not.

Attaining a student concession Myki is contingent on being (1) an undergraduate who is (2) a citizen/permanent resident that is (3) studying a full-time load. That’s a pretty exclusive set of criteria. PhD students, who subsist on an average pay that is below minimum wage, don’t get a concession. The 40% of international students at the University of Melbourne don’t get a concession. The many part-time students that are part-time to balance uni with work and other commitments don’t get a concession.

But even that would be mostly fine if fares were cheap in Victoria. They’re not.

When it comes to the shorter trips that make up most day-to-day travel, especially for students, Melbourne has some of the most expensive fares in Australia. Fare increases over the past two decades have outpaced inflation so that it is often cheaper to drive than to take public transport. These prices hit especially hard for students: 58% of domestic undergraduate students have financial concerns and this increases across vulnerable demographics. Based on the prices of the Myki Zone 1+2 annual pass, students could be paying around $877.50 on a concession or $1755 on full-fare per year—that’s money that could have gone toward rent, toward food or toward other vital bills. Instead, they’re spending it on public transport that does not even have the service quality to justify such a price.

And then there’s the cherry on top: the fucking Myki inspectors. There’s no good data on these Authorised Officers (AOs) but we all have good reason to believe from personal experience that they deliberately set up at Stop 1 most days to catch out students. Their encounters with students tend to be marked by aggression and confusion, and there is low public trust in AO capacity to be fair and respectful. No wonder, considering that they seem to target low-income demographics rather than hanging out in wealthier areas instead.

So, why is public transport so fucked for students?

Well, it would be irresponsible to offer any absolute answers, but the privatisation of public transport in the ‘90s was not of great benefit to students. Or really anyone, for that matter—except for the foreign companies we brought in to run our public transport franchises.

The promise of the Libs when they privatised the Metropolitan Transit Authority was that increases in fare revenue would lead to improved services, improved patronage and lower costs to the taxpayer. The idea was that the state government could take the centralised transit authority, split it into five corporations (known as “franchises”), sell these off to operating companies and then allow them to compete for customers. The implementation wound up being rather cooked: because the companies were competing, there was little incentive to integrate services or to cooperate in providing a comprehensive transport system. It didn’t end up minimising costs either because franchisees were in positions they could leverage for rent-seeking against the state government.

So, instead, what we’ve got is fares increasing across the past 25 years with very little to show for it in terms of service provision, innovation and cost-effectiveness. While the state government does still set the strategic objectives of public transport, the fact that the tactical planning and operation is handled by private companies means that the public interest is no longer enshrined in these processes. And the public interest is student interest.

Thus, when I hear calls to expand the free tram zone, I can’t help but sense some myopia. Sure, if we expand it then University of Melbourne and RMIT students get a decent deal, but the problems with public transport are bigger than just us. There’s other universities in Victoria that continue having to cop the exclusionary concession system, the poor integration, the dodgy AOs. Hell, it’s not just students—everyone has to cop it. All an expansion of the free tram zone does is make it easier for students who already live in the city to get to campus.

If we want public transport that works for students, we need more than a bigger free tram zone. We need a public transport system that is deeply invested in providing inclusive, impressive and innovative services. The current system of semi-privatised franchising has produced meagre results, and there has to be a rethink.

Looking abroad, countries like Luxembourg and Estonia are moving towards models of free public transport on a national level. The results have been mixed so far, and there are some economic and environmental arguments against it, but I don’t think that’s a reason to write it off completely. However, just making things free doesn’t solve issues with service provision and perverse incentives either. The underlying principle of urban planning across much of the Anglophone world has been “cars first, public transport second”. It’s locked our cities onto a frustrating path of car dependence. As students, such a system works to our detriment: most of us lack the finances to maintain a car and drive everywhere (especially with petrol prices this high), and a lot of us don’t even have licences. Such dependence on cars can only be overcome through accessible and high-quality systems of public transport capable of competing with the car as a mode of transportation.

Ultimately, if students want a public transport system that works for us, then we need to look beyond short-term self-interest. Expanding the free tram zone is a band-aid on the bullet hole that is Victorian public transport policy. Implementing forms of free public transport could be worth pursuing, but we have to do more than just that as well. Public transport policy is complicated and there’s no quick, easy answers. As students, we need to do more than just champion the stuff that is immediately convenient for us, such as expanding the free tram zone or making public transport free without addressing the system’s underlying problems. We should be pushing for serious reconsiderations of how urban planning and transport policy is conducted in Victoria, rather than settling for cheap fixes.

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