Mode of travel by students to high school, Melbourne and regional centres (data source: VISTA)
Mode of travel by students to high school, Melbourne and regional centres (data source: VISTA)

The Age reported yesterday on how the “hidden” cost of public transport school fares impacts on a single parent supporting three school-age children on an annual salary of $28,000 (Call for school students to get free public transport).

She cites $400 for textbooks and stationery, $550 for a laptop, and several hundred dollars in school excursions. However, the most expensive “hidden” cost is one that is seldom talked about – $1638 for myki yearly passes, at $546 for each child.

This human interest angle is designed to prime readers for the real purpose of the story, which is to report a call by the Victorian Greens education spokesperson Sue Pennicuik to introduce free public transport for school students. Ms Pennicuik says it would “help struggling families and ease traffic congestion during school hours”. Further:

We know that many children, even secondary children, are being driven to and from school every day, when they could walk, ride or use public transport. Free public transport for school children would be a huge help to household budgets, especially for low-income families.

This sounds like a compelling proposition when it’s framed around one struggling family, but it’s a questionable idea.

It would be expensive: There are around 400,000 high school students in Victoria and the concessional myki costs $546 for a year. Around 38% of metropolitan and regional centre trips to high schools are made by public transport. This suggests the cost of making all public transport free could be in the order of $82 million p.a., plus a further $13 million p.a. for primary students.

It would inequitable: The Age selected a very low income family to “colour” its report and yes, it’s true free school travel would greatly benefit poor families. However it would also gift a substantial subsidy to the great majority of families who have sufficient capacity to pay what is already a concessional fare. Note that 56% of high school students in Victoria go to private schools (55/45 Catholic, Independent).

Ms Pennicuik would be better advised to argue for larger student travel concessions targeted directly at those in need.

It wouldn’t do a lot to lower car use. The reason students are driven to high school isn’t because concessional public transport’s too expensive. It’s because their parents are driving that way to get to work; because public transport takes too long or is too infrequent; or because the stay-at-home parent simply doesn’t regard public transport as an option.

It’s interesting to note that while driving’s share of high school travel in Melbourne increased significantly over the last 25 years, public transport’s share held up reasonably well, declining from around 43% to 39%. The biggest loser was cycling (see Did students cycle back in the day?). (1)

In any event, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to reduce public transport revenue given that level of service has a larger influence on patronage than fares. School fares are already subsidised and the concession fare includes free travel for all purposes, not just school travel.

The cost of school fares is only one of a number of serious costs that very poor families face, like electricity, food, rent, computers and so on; everything is too costly when you don’t have much money. The source of the problem, obviously enough, is low incomes; the best solution is to increase the incomes of poor families directly.

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  1. Note that car’s share is lower for the “from school” journey because it doesn’t coincide with when parents are driving home from work.