Universal Basic Services – Transports of delight?

Information and transport were two of the four flagship services proposed by the recent University College London UBS report.

Having reread the report I looked at here the concept of free information through a phone or internet connection should be pretty striaghtforward to implement. Indeed when the government is providing an assured income for providers it would be more able to mandate proper and quick broadband for everywhere as well as comprehensive phone signals. Broadband and phone companies will squeal I’m sure, but these entrepreneurial capitalists will just have to compete on service (something to date, where few have excelled) and on selling top up extras over and above the government minimum. Surely that shouldn’t be too hard? Additionally this should mean that those renting housing on a six month contract (though it is devoutly to be wished that this short tenancy stuff will have changed by then!) would not have to demur when the phone company says they have a minimum period of 1 year for ‘free activation’.

Although ‘transport of information’ is, by the report’s own figures, the most expensive policy of the four suggestions it is, practically, fairly easily deliverable and might even allow the government legitimately to insist that some of its services could be offered exclusively online.

Counter-intuitively, free local transport for people is likely to prove more challenging. This is seen in the report as free local travel on buses trams, trains or underground.

In many ways the last three are relatively unproblematic as current ticketing and service provision is controlled – it is nowhere near a market and usually partly if not entirely government or local authority specified. Any controversy will be more likely to turn on how far you can travel on such services. Or, even more importantly, whether it is fair that for those parts of the country which are a long way away from any such provision, it should be considered appropriate as part of a basic service – because it would be far from universal.

Buses are much more universal, and, when ONS figures indicate approximately 25% of households have no access to a car or van (and even in the rural South West for example this reduces only to 19%) Universal Basic Transport would be fairest to all by encompassing buses alone. And even this will present challenges.
Two different basic structures for bus services exist. Thatcherism had the idea that allowing swashbuckling capitalists to run buses outside London would demonstrate to Greater London that they needed to adopt similar plans. In fact it did no such thing – bus travel outside London has been in decline for years, fares are generally higher and there is little innovation. So, in fact the evidence demonstrated that the London system was pretty good, and operated with less subsidy per passenger than services outside London.

Furthermore the inheritance of Ken Livingstone has lived on and flourished so even in 2017 Leon Daniels MD of Transport for London surface transport is able to say:

“successive Mayors have had as a matter of policy to have a comprehensive bus service running across the network across Greater London to and from places just over the boundary, where everybody should be within 400 metres of their nearest bus stop, to run that service all day and, if possible, all night where there is demand -and to do so at a cheap fare. Successive Mayors have in one form or another had this as a policy because they believe that this provides mobility for all members of society, people going to and from work, going to and from school and further education and people looking for work. I am reminded that more than half the passengers on our night bus network are travelling to or from work.”

this is a laudable aim and one which sums up why transport should be part of any Universal Basic Service. But it must not be forgotten that the London bus system specifies routes, franchises operators and takes the revenue ’risk’. Not so everywhere else.

Outside London subsidies have been slashed everywhere. In the towns of Shrewsbury, Middlewich and Yeovil you’ll never see a single bus on a Sunday. Devon County Council, whilst cutting its rural bus service budget has said “it will ensure weekly links are protected”. Neighbouring Somerset has given no such undertaking. Yet weekly or irregular bus services will not help you get a job or even attend an evening class. They are neither universal or basic – never mind any real sort of service.

Furthermore the report suggests the everyday use of what is now a retired persons ‘freedom pass’ for every passenger. These are reimbursed at a fixed, standard fee. In both London and outside you tap in but not out. So in effect bus operators have records of boarding only. In London operators are contracted by Transport for London to run a service whether empty or full. Outside London, when you are paid a flat fee for boarders this will create a perverse incentive to run only on routes with high passenger numbers over short distances because the operator, in taking all the revenue risk, will never be paid a penny more for a passenger travelling further. In order to ‘sweat the assets’, routes are bound to be truncated and passenger appeals will be made to councils to subsidise the ends of routes where inevitably passengers are thinning out – and probably rural routes will require even greater subsidy.

The best ‘cure’ would surely be for everywhere to operate on a London style system, which will be administratively more demanding (i.e. expensive) but nonetheless, with its regulated system for timetables, and penalties for late running and cancellations it would also be likely to abolish the cowboys where – as happens outside London – bus services can be run without insurance and can go bust overnight, leaving locations unconnected and even school buses unprovided. It is as if bad public service is purposely enabled. With the assurance of a regular income from a London style contract, without the risk of oscillating revenue, services in the rest of the country are likely to be improved.

But this still leaves our rural areas problem, where they may have to put up with schemes such as this, currently providing inexpensive scooter hire for rural residents. Presumably this would have to be made free. This of course is fine for people old enough to take part but not for the younger or (probably!) granny. Ring and ride bus services exist but are not generally available on a daily basis. Presumably usage would increase if the service was free and some efficiency might be gained by having an app. But the market is obviously small and expansion to a regular service would probably be difficult. So you might end up with free taxis, which may not be what a basic service was meant to be… Or else perhaps the rural household would have to be provided with a cheque in lieu…

Providing free local transport is certainly an idea whose time has come and it seems highly improbable that there would not be a net environmental benefit with fewer car journeys in consequence. Indeed this might be its principal importance. But any change will require careful preparation as even at its most basic, it has to be assumed that the bus industry, which has been in gentle decline for years, has sufficient spare capacity to welcome many more passengers. Whilst the rural transport problem should not be allowed to ‘derail’ the idea it will require careful examination and trials of different systems. To add local freedom of other modes of public transport would be unwise before the bus, as the most universal form of public transport, has been properly prepared and then evaluated. Even free buses are not quite as simple as they seem…


  1. Peter Dawe -

    This is an article that sabotages the idea of Universal Basic services. ( As predicted in my earlier comment) Free transport generates traffic and reduces average utility and can reduce aggregate utility by crowding out higher utility users.
    There has to be negative feedback in a system, or it runs out-of-control. Pricing is the most common in western society, but there are others.

    I’d also question whether transport is actually a social good. Mobility lowers social cohesion and has significant environmental impact.

    Access to information is to a large extent no longer a problem. With near global access to the Internet, Negative feedback is through speed of connection, rather than non-access. (The many problems with permission to collect, keep and access information are well outside the debate on universal services)

    I believe proponents of Universal Basic Services need to restrict the scope, certainly while and food, shelter and access to the (few) other truly basic services are not available.

    Anyone brave enough to start an, ever increasing in detail, minimal level of services list?

    1. Peter May -

      Transport could certainly be considered a UBS: who among us doesn’t use it? I don’t know anyone who operates their life only within walking distance. Transport may or may not be a social good but it seems to be necessary – and free buses would be likely to take some cars off the road and thus be of benefit with regards to pollution, congestion and road accidents.
      On internet access I agree re speed, but if it was a UBS, the government, as a momoploy buyer, should be able to mandate proper speeds.
      Think you’re right about minimal services – as we’ll probably see when I look at food and shelter!

      1. Sean Danaher -

        Hi Peter
        I’m the UK I think the closest we have come to free transport was the very heavily subsidised public transport system in the socialist republic of South Yorkshire in the early 1980s
        Busses weren’t quite free but the maximum fare in Sheffield was 15p and Barnsley to Sheffield 25p
        I was a postdoc at Sheffield Uni at the time and used it extensively
        I remember reading an economic impact study which was extremely positive largely because of the dramatic reduction of traffic density and recommended it be rolled out nationwide

        Sadly Neoliberalism was getting into full swing and rather than the S Yorks model being adopted it was consigned to history

        My mother told me when she lived in Sweden everyone was entitled to a certain number of free bus journeys per month
        Not sure if this was just in Uppsala or more nationwide

  2. Graham -

    The problem with transport policy in the UK is – that there isn’t one. We need to examine all forms of transport for people and goods with the aim of reducing many kinds of movement to reduce congestion, pollution, injury & death, the waste of resources and obesity.

    We have to tackle the obsessive car mentality and the endless streams of heavy trucks grinding up the motorways and clogging up cities, towns and villages and the knee-jerk reaction to build more roads which only creates more traffic.

    Not to mention ridiculously cheap, subsidised (no fuel tax) air travel.

    Invest in rail, either legislate or price vehicles off the roads, provide safe cycle and pedestrian facilities and free, convenient, comfortable, punctual public transport with not just between major centres but in rural areas too.

    Electric vehicles might solve the emissions problem, or maybe just move it elsewhere, but they will create other issues, such as where is all the electricity going to come from, and isn’t the answer to more fundamental problems. Car manufacturers aren’t developing them out of altruism.

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