Myth: We can’t improve public transport because we need the money for hospitals

Myth: We can’t improve public transport because we need the money for hospitals
Fact: No-one seriously suggests we should take money away from hospitals to fund public transport. This is just a way of ‘framing’ the issue to distract attention from all the money the government spends building more roads.

State Government budgets are often likened to popularity contests, in which transport ‘competes’ for funding with other essential public services like health and education. When public transport routinely draws the short straw (as when the Victorian Government regularly rules out new rail extensions) governments have a ready-made excuse: that the money isn’t available becase hospitals and schools have a more urgent call on public funds.

Climate-change sceptic Bjorn Lomborg uses a similar trick to argue why we shouldn’t bother spending money to reduce greenhouse emissions. Since a dollar spent alleviating poverty in Africa does more good than a dollar spent mitigating climate change (Lomborg argues), we should ignore climate change and use all the money we would have spent on it to alleviate poverty in Africa instead.

Both of the above are classic examples of ‘framing’, also known as the ‘fallacy of the false dilemma’. The problem is framed so as to create the impression that there are only two kinds of spending, both desirable, and that one must always come at the expense of the other. The fact that a lot of money is spent on things other than hospitals, schools, public transport, or aid to Africa, and that all these other forms of spending raise similar questions of desirability, is conveniently placed outside the bounds of debate. If we really want to help people we are supposed to forgo spending only on the framed alternative, and not on any of the other things we currently spend money on – however desirable or otherwise.

In Victoria, while funding for new public transport services languishes forever in limbo, there is no shortage of money for new roads. This is because each year a sum of money is provided to the transport portfolio, including a certain amount for new projects, and it is (largely) left up to the transport bureaucracy to determine how the money is going to be spent. Since the bureaucracy doesn’t like public transport and prefers to spend the money on roads, the bulk of the money for new projects gets spent on roads. So it is new roads, and not schools or hospitals, that compete with public transport for funding.

This is despite the fact that not much additional funding is required at all for public transport in Melbourne to rival the best systems in the world. A certain amount of investment in new network extensions is certainly required, though the cost has been estimated as equivalent to one small freeway. But since improvements in service levels to ‘choice’ standards largely pay for themselves in increased patronage, what the system desperately needs is not more money but a planning overhaul.

And since well-patronised public transport costs less to provide than the equivalent road capacity, the result when enough people shift from cars to public transport is that more money is available to spend on hospitals and schools, not less!

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Last modified: 30 November 2006