Public Education was a challenge in the 19th Century. Public Transport is our challenge.

Sir Ken Robinson: The problem is that the current system of education was designed and conceived and structured for a different age. It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution. Before the middle of the 19th Century, there were no systems of public education. … Continue reading “Public Education was a challenge in the 19th Century. Public Transport is our challenge.”

Sir Ken Robinson:

The problem is that the current system of education was designed and conceived and structured for a different age.
It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution. Before the middle of the 19th Century, there were no systems of public education.

But public education, paid for from taxation, compulsory to everybody, and free at the point of delivery – that was a revolutionary idea. And many people objected to it. They said it’s not possible for many street kids, working class children to benefit from public education.

Free public transport, paid for by taxation, available to everyone and free at the point of delivery. That’s a revolutionary idea. And many people are objecting to it. They say that the system will be abused by “those people” without directly pointing the finger at low income individuals and families – those who the system will benefit the most.

How long can Northern Ireland tolerate a public transportation system that is simply unfit for purpose? Where rush hour buses are 2/3 empty? Where the expense of using it is grudgingly similar to a car for a single person but absolutely intolerable for a family journey? Where the process of getting a bus hasn’t changed in over 30 years? Where the caretaker company has deliberately obstructed attempts to use technology to improve public transport uptake? Where they have repeatedly made dubious investments in technology which were more concerned with correct billing of customers rather than making it easier and more convenient for customers.

The benefits to economic and social mobility, the improvements in quality of life and the benefits to environment, community are all easily extrapolated from other regions who have decided to serve their citizens better. And the reduction in traffic on the roads would be of immense benefit to those people who, for their own reasons, have to drive.

I measure transportation on three axes. Reliability, Flexibility and Cost. Buses will never be as flexible as owning your own car. Therefore you have to make the system 100% reliable or do something with the cost.

The reliability of the bus system is affected by traffic, primarily, so to increase reliability, you have to decrease the number of cars on the roads. So you have to look at costs.

To get people out of their cars, to increase the reliability of the system, you have to make it that the individual would be crazy to use a car (or would have it mandated by their employer).

The only leverage you have is cost. Make it so cheap that only special cases would choose to use private transport. And at some point, the machinery, the collection and the transport and security over collecting the money becomes uneconomical in itself. The process of collecting the money becomes the barrier to collecting the money. So you make it free.

You guarantee the right of mobility to citizens and tourists alike. You energise the individual and the family to travel the length and breadth of Northern Ireland cost-free. To spend their hard-earned cash in other areas.

You enable the individual to choose to work in the next town, commuting every morning without having to consider the percentage that commute will take out of his or her minimum wage job. You empower people to take advantage of employment.

You encourage travel across the province for tourism, helping to resolve an issue that the vast majority of visitors to Northern Ireland do not leave the cities.

Even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool petrol head, a decrease of traffic should interest you. A reduction in the wear and tear on the roads should interest you. Even if you never use a bus, you could start to think of those for whom public transport is the only opportunity to move beyond their immediate community and the positive effects that could have on our society.

0 thoughts on “Public Education was a challenge in the 19th Century. Public Transport is our challenge.”

  1. The idea of a free public transport system within Belfast is an intriguing one, and there is certainly an arguable case for it. There are cities worldwide which have shown great advantages to be gained by reducing the cost of public transport

    In the interests of historical accuracy, we should also say that it’s not really a new idea for Belfast – free public transport was widely proposed and debated in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s during the inquiries into the Belfast Transportation Plan and Westlink (of course being rejected by the then-authorities).

    If you are attempting to provoke debate, your opening paragraph greatly harms your case by employing a classic “straw man” argument to imply that anyone who questions such a concept could only be doing so out of a form of middle-class snobbishness. The implication is that those who hold this view can be dismissed without further consideration to their arguments. You then go on to present a reasonable robust argument in favour of the idea, but it would be difficult for anyone to seriously debate the point with the tone already set at the start.

    I totally agree that Northern Ireland’s public transport system is inadequate. It is also true that cost is one of the most visible and hence accessible variables that could be tweaked to change matters. Nevertheless, despite the straw-man hurdle you have set up, I am going to mention some counterpoints which I think are relevant.

    1. You measure transportation on three axes – reliability, flexibility and cost. I would add at least one more, which is comfort. This is slightly different from flexibility, in that a lot of people seem to choose to sit in a car in a traffic jam, *even if* it’s slower, less flexible and more costly simply because they like having their own personal space, dryness, music, no bad BO, preferred temperature etc. When some advocates throw their hands up in the air when people still choose to drive even though there’s a fast, cheap public transport system, it is because they are forgetting (or ignoring the fact) that the axis of comfort is very important to a lot of people.

    2. You dismiss the possibility of improving the reliability of the bus system in one sentence. This is totally unjustified. You don’t *have to* decrease the number of cars on the road to improve the bus system, as you put it. You can do it in lots of ways: building entirely new public transport routes routes, or by reallocating lane space in a way that does not lose much capacity (as witnessed on the proposed one-way gyratory on Great Victoria Street). Similarly, you can of course improve bus reliability without decreasing the number of cars by increasing the journey time for cars, i.e. by creating more bus lanes. Your dismissal of this option in one sentence is unjustified, and seems to be merely a rung leading speedily to your preferred option of reducing cost.

    3. I disagree with your sentence “Make it so cheap that only special cases would choose to use private transport”. While very cheap or free public transport would likely lead a lot of people to switch to public transport, this would not lead to the situation you describe where only “special cases” would us it. Why? Because you are making the mistake of assuming that cars and buses are fungible, that you can simply replace one with the other. This ignores the key factor of comfort, which is in fact why many people choose to drive despite the traffic jams. Cars are not like buses in the sense that they are a “luxury” product. I don’t mean a “luxury” like a sauna, that you can easily live without, more like a washing machine that is immensely useful, but which you *can* live without, by using a less convenient but quite adequate laundrette service. Some people choose to drive a car because they have no other option right now, but even if the system was 100% free a lot of people would drive who would not really be considered “special cases” (e.g. the disabled). For example (a) people who dislike getting wet walking to the bus stop (b) people who find the crowds on buses unpleasant (c) people who simply like driving (d) people who like begin able to set the air temperature and music volume etc… People, in other words, who are all too easily dismissed for simply exercising freedom of choice, but who will make rational choices if given a free, non-dictatorial society within which to make them.

    4. Your conclusion is that public transport should be completely free at the point of use, funded by “the taxpayer”, i.e. everyone who pays tax. I am glad that you acknowledge that it is not “free” and that ultimately someone has to pay. By making it funded by the taxpayer you are saying that everyone should pay towards it based not on the amount of transport services they use, but on how much they earn. This may well suit a socialist outlook on politics, but it would be very unfair to people who do not live in major towns and cities. For example, people who live in my home town of Omagh would find it bizarre to use a bus for most journeys in the town. Even if it was free, it would take so much longer in such a small town that it would be quite irrational to choose a free bus over a car a lot of the time. Similarly, people who live in rural areas for whom public transport is rarely a sensible option anyway, would be severely disadvantaged. My friend who lives on a farm in rural county Down scan hop in a car and drive to the supermarket in 6 minutes. He genuinely cannot understand why some people think he should take a bus to make a journey along what are essentially empty roads, when he can just hop in the car. There is no justification for ever making such a journey by bus, unless you literally could not afford a car. So entirely free public transport would lead not just to the rich subsiding the poor (which a lot of people would think was OK), but also non-city dwellers heavily subsidising city dwellers (which is not OK) and those who do not travel much (e.g. people who choose to live in a run-down area close to their work) subsiding those who travel a lot (e.g. wealthy who live on the seaside and commute into the city).

    5. You also need to state where the money for this is to come from. In Northern Ireland central government receives around £512m in taxation directly from car users. This money circulates within government and is used for various purposes. Around £250m was spent in 2010-11 on road maintenance and improvements. So the net result is that car users in Northern Ireland contribute a net Quarter-Billion Pounds into the taxation kitty every year. Reduce the number of cars and you reduce this income. Now, thinking about Translink. In 2010-11 they received £185m in fares and £130m in government subsidies. If you make the fares zero, then you immediately have to find £185m in additional money to fund this shortfall, a very significant sum of money. I am not saying this as an argument against free public transport, but if you are going to advocate such a proposal you need to be up front about what you are going to cut to find that money – schools? hospitals? How are you going to raise £185m per year, and probably more if income from drives goes down and more buses are needed?

    6. When Translink introduced free travel for retired people, they were surprised by how many people chose to use it purely for pleasure. For example, my parents will hop on a train to Portrush, get off and have a cup of coffee and get the train home. The journey is fun to them, and is hence probably socially good when multiplied out across the province, but is this really the outcome you want? People travelling miles and miles to have a cup of coffee? Similarly, if you make public transport entirely free, you are going to make transport desirable not just where there is a need, but also where it’s fun. This will lead to huge increase in travel, something completely opposed to government policy which is to “Reduce, where possible, the need to travel” in order to combat climate change.

    7. Transport has been a “commodity” since prehistoric times, i.e. something that must be paid for either by time, effort or money. You are correct to call free public transport a revolutionary idea, because it is something that has only very rarely been true throughout human history. Completely free transport removes all sense of supply-and-demand from the commodity, similar to the way heavily subsided petrol in Latin America leads to a hugely distorted fuel market where driving a car is far cheaper than it would be under the free market. Shortly after the Community revolution in China, the government introduced an “all you can eat” policy on farms, where farmers could eat what they wanted and the rest went to the cities. The result was a surge in obesity and loss of productivity, because people no longer had to take the *value* or *cost* of the commodity into account when deciding how to use it. This is a problem that greatly afflicts the NHS, where my wife works, so you end up with enormous waste by people being prescribed treatments they do not need. It is very dangerous to remove all cost from a commodity that has a cost (in this case to the environment) to the point that people no longer have to take it into account. This would be the outcome of free public transport for all.

    8. If you remove the law of supply and demand from transport by making it free, then there is a much reduced incentive to live near where you work. Everyone could choose to live further out of the city and commute long distances to work. Property prices in cities would fall and while those in more distant places like Newtownards will rise – the opposite of the current scenario. Those on lower incomes would be priced out of satellite towns and into the inner cities. Is this a good thing? Maybe, maybe not, but it will happen. Similarly, properties along public transport corridors will see price rises, while properties a bit away from a trunk route will see property prices fall. I used to live in Glengormely – this is a town that appeared literally *because* it was the end of the tram route and was hence the furthest out you could go on the city’s public transport system. While such economic changes will, of course, find its new equilibrium but you have to accept that will cause huge social and economic upheaval and probably an increase in the need to travel, something which is the opposite of the current policy. By tweaking one commodity, such as the cost of transport, you quickly realise that it cannot be changed in isolation, or with the purely positive effects you imply.

    Your idea of free public transport for all is excellent in principle, but comes with it deeply-rooted injustices and side effects that need to be much more thoroughly thought through before it could be considered a serious proposal.

  2. Hi Wesley,
    Thanks for your extensive and well-thought comment.

    There will always be inequities and money always has to come from one budget or another. And yes, the middle-class rural folk objected (here and on Twitter) to free public transport but then they would. State measures have to be aimed at the largest possible population and there’s no way, without a considerable build-out, that rural areas could be served the same as urban areas. People who live there, do so by choice remember and there are a lot of services they do not receive. They cannot walk to a shop, normally. Their roads may not be maintained the same. They may not have access to drainage systems. They may lose power or water during inclement weather (I lived in a rural area just outside Mallusk).

    Considering a third of the population of Northern Ireland lives in the Belfast Metropolitan Urban Area, providing additional services for these people would seem reasonable (their taxes tend to be higher too, their houses more expensive) and for those who are out of work or in low income situations, they tend to be urban too.

    You admit near the beginning that other regions have adopted it and then as you progress, you state the obvious. Either it’s good or it is bad. We can go through and measure the various parts of the model but other than “where will the money come from” and “won’t someone think of the poor rural people”, I don’t see an argument against the concept. If we took the “where will the money come from” argument to heart, then nothing would ever be done by government. Where there is a will, there is a way. And government always finds a way to get the money it needs.

    Where would the money come from? Partially from a reduction in people on the dole, due to people being able to consider jobs within commuting distance who move from being on the dole to being taxpayers.

    Your comfort argument is a good one and one that would prevent me from using public transport (other than my morning journeys being a forty minute school run with two boys to two different schools followed by a forty minute commute into the office to a job that requires the use of a car).

    I’m not going to profess to be an expert nor am I going to say I’ve done more research than anyone. This is neither my job nor my hobby. But I consider it a clear and present failure of our disastrously bad public transport system that I, as a middle class adult of advancing years, would not consider public transport unless my very life depended upon it.

    Social and economic mobility is a good thing. There’s evidence from everywhere it has been implemented that it brings good things for the community, for the economy and for the environment.

  3. Hi Matt,

    It was good to talk to you today but too bad that neither of us was wearing our “FREE PUBLIC TRANSPORT” badges otherwise we could have had an even more interesting “civic conversation”.

    The data at the end of this post were published on the Ministerial Advisory Group (MAG) website in April this year.

    Contrary to Wesley Johnston’s assertion that this issue is about government getting money from private cars and spending some of it on roads, this is about SOCIETAL COST in money (as you will see below) and CO2 emissions as noted in all government plans including today’s Belfast Masterplan. NI’s 860,000 private cars clearly cause the problem. (There are about 1,500 buses and in comparison, a few trains and lorries). The figures are for the whole of N Ireland and are in today’s values for the 20 year period of the Railway Investment paper on which MAG was commenting. They are from government and Translink sources except for the car keeping and running costs which are conservative in that they are based on AA figures for a typical small car, not an average car.

    Since everyone shares anecdotes (or confessions) about their own transport arrangements, I will do so too and say that before my free bus and rail pass came in the post, I had not been on public transport for decades. Now I am on a bus or a train at least ten times a week. My car is still there and I continue to pay DVA tax, insurance, maintenance, MoT fees, etc. so I am still contributing to Wesley’s road fund. I just use it less now.

    “Maybe we need to talk……….”

    Best regards


    COMPARATOR (millions)
    4.1.1 Maintaining road network at present level £2,400.0

    4.1.2 Improving road network at present level £3,480.0


    4.2 .1 Maintain railways at present level (PACKAGE 1) £620.0

    4.2 .2 Maintain present network and increase passenger capacity
    on present network (PACKAGE 2) £1,220.0

    4.2 .3 Maintain present network and increase network capacity to accommodate more trains (PACKAGE 3) £1,480.0

    4.2 .4 Maintain present network, electrify and enhance the Enterprise £1,080.0
    service to NI border (PACKAGE 4)

    4.2 .5 Maintain present network and electrify the rest (in addition to the Enterprise service) (PACKAGE 5) £970.0

    4.2 .6 Maintain present network, open Antrim-Knockmore line and link
    to Belfast International Airport (PACKAGE 6) £670.5

    4.2 .7 Maintain present network and extend lines to the west including Portadown – Dungannon, Omagh and Enniskillen (PACKAGE 7) £1,918.0

    4.2 .8 Maintain present network and extend lines to Leetterkenny,
    Donegal and Sligo (PACKAGE 8) £2,292.0

    4.2.9 TOTAL OF ALL RAIL PACKAGES 1 to 8 £5,310.5

    4.3.1 Standing costs of 860,000 private cars £43,000.0

    4.3.2 Running costs for private cars @ 9,511,600 miles/year £41,679.8

    4.3.3 TOTAL COSTS OF PRIVATE CARS £84,679.8

    4.4.1 Total turnover of all train services £1,114.0

    4.4.2 Total turnover of all bus services £2,686.0


    to reduce poverty and increase social inclusion £2,240.0

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