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 Adam Simmons

Why does nobody give a damn about public transport?

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What are the objectives of public transport? I think we can safely say an efficient public transport (PT) system satisfies the following needs:

  • Allow people living in households without access to a car (a figure of around 15-20% is a fair average for much of Spain) to get about;
  • Reduces social exclusion for people who are too young or too old to drive;
  • Allows people to get to work in an efficient and cost-effective manner; and
  • Everybody claims to want to bring down pollution levels and the numbers of cars on the road – a good PT system achieves this.

Public transportWhat do I mean by a “good” PT system? A very simple indicator is how much public transport is used and, in this regard, much of Spain falls well short of comparable towns and regions in England. Comparisons are difficult, but the Isle of Wight and Lanzarote have nearly identical populations but buses are used on the British island three times as much as on the Spanish one.

I’m not suggesting that public transport is a magic bullet to cure all the ills of an economy, but I have worked in plenty of countries in the developing world where the appreciation of the importance of an effective PT network is much higher than in Spain.

So, what factors are responsible for the failure of PT in much of Spain? They can be grouped into two categories, administrative and geographical.

Administrative

It goes without saying that public transport requires subsidies but surely it the duty of those responsible for the provision of PT to use taxpayers’ money responsibly. Spain is different from the UK in that there are usually urban or regional monopolies, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. What IS important is how the PT operator is managed. For example, I challenge anybody (and I would be delighted to lose this challenge!) to show me an operation which monitors performance. In other words, what percentages of buses run late or are cancelled? If an operator’s performance deteriorates, what penalties and sanctions are invoked to punish the operator? Is it possible for an operator to lose the franchise through consistently poor performance?

In many regions, the promotion of PT is so appalling that a first year business studies student would blanch. I expect that there are too many political appointees set up with a comfy sinecure and not enough professionals who understand how an efficient PT system should operate. But, if there are no incentives or sanctions written into the contract to provide PT services, what is the point in making an effort to improve things, knowing that your losses will be bailed out by the local authority?

Geographical

I have come across a depressing number of examples where a municipal boundary is a constraining factor on running a bus service and where personal fiefdoms triumph over what is good for the population.

Let’s look at the example below, which is from the northern end of the Costa Blanca. Ondara has a population of around 7,000 and Denia 45,000. The Denia Port zone is the terminus for the Alicante Tram linking Denia to Calpe and Benidorm and Denia is the main port for ferries to and from the Balearic Islands.

Public transport

In public transport terms, this route is a dream come true! Shopping centres and hospitals are major sources of use of public transport and to have two major “attractions” on a fairly short route is highly unusual. So, common sense dictates that there would be one regular bus, perhaps every 30 minutes, linking all these places.

One reason this does not happen is the boundary between Ondara  and the hospital. So, instead, there is a regular, hourly service, operated by Denia, between the port and the hospital. Overlaid onto this is a very irregular service (gaps range from 15 minutes to 2½ hours in frequency) between El Portal and Denia Town (not the port area). The cross border bus is not allowed to carry passengers between the hospital and Denia town.

It goes without saying that what it costs to operate two separate services, how many people use each of them and how much the subsidy is required is not available. The fact that a combined service would produce greater revenue from workers and visitors, reduce the necessary subsidies which the councils could put to better use elsewhere and create more jobs with a combined higher frequency service (drivers, maintenance, etc) seems lost in the petty squabbles over a demarcation dispute over a border which matters to nobody but politicians.

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