I recently saw a sign indicating that Sydney Buses is soon going to do a trial where the M10 bus service has wireless internet on board for six months. This was a simultaneous ‘yay!’ and ‘ohhh’ moment for me. The former because it’s a great idea we should be getting into, and the second because, well, wireless internet as a means of encouraging public transport use was an idea I came up with about nine months ago and have been meaning to write about ever since. Now I look like I’m jumping a bandwagon rather than demonstrating leadership, but that ship has sailed (particularly if it’s a ferry).
In any case, I think the trial is a great idea – possibly one that could have been better initiated, but good regardless. I think it would have been better to do the trial on a train or ferry service, where people are usually on the vehicle for longer and it’s a steadier ride, and therefore more conducive to internet usage. I also think it should be trialled across more than one bus service in case there’s something very specific about the M10 that affects the way people use it. Still, internet on public transport is a good idea in my book.
Why? Because the number one reason I hear for people choosing not to use public transport is that it’s slow, and, thus, a waste of time. Expensive and unreliable are next on this list, but it’s clear that a lot of people are willing to cough up the money, and public transport is by far the cheapest way to travel. As for unreliability, that’s something I think can be indirectly corrected by this new provision of wireless internet, which I’ll come back to.
The beauty of wireless internet on public transport is that it transforms commuting time into useful time. You can be productive on a bus, train, or ferry, no matter how long it actually takes you to get to the office, or wherever it is you’re going. Yes, it will require you to have a laptop or handheld device, but it’s clear that’s not much of a limitation because laptop and mobile sales are expanding all the time. And yes, there are still limits on the type of work you can usefully do – it wouldn’t have been much good to me when I was doing field work, for example – but if you’re an office worker, wireless internet is going to do you a world of good. It’s going to save you time, and if your boss is a remotely decent person, it might mean you spend slightly fewer hours actually at work, because you’re being productive on the way there.
The other reason that wireless internet on public transport is good is that it will make money. One of the many reasons public transport is as awful as it is now is that there isn’t enough money put into it – and people want money put into it. I can’t remember the exact article, but last year I read that in a survey of 1500 people undertaken by the state government, an overwhelming majority of people – around 80% – thought more money could and should be put into public transport. By contrast, only about five people – not five percent, five people – wanted more money put into roads.
The government proceeded to ignore the research and pour more money into roads. But if wireless internet encourages more people to use public transport, it will start making some money for once. And then I think even our government would have some trouble trying to take money out of public transport to give it directly to roads. (Even if the Australian government thinks the way to pay to clean up after the floods and cyclone occurring at the same time as heatwaves and bushfires is to cut climate change mitigation spending. And yes, I weep about that every night.).
How much money would it make? I’m in no position to know. But it could encourage things like riding trains around the city circle to check your email, because it’d be cheaper than an internet cafe. Or taking a bus to the pool, because you needed to send a document and you can’t do that in the car. There will almost certainly be people who try to scam or hack it, and I imagine it will be expensive to set up. But those people will be a minority, and in the meantime we should develop more funding for public transport, which will hopefully fix the above reliability issues. In fact, if it’s popular enough, maybe we’ll start having sufficient demand to run more bus and train services – which will then make public transport more popular again. In the longer run, the more successful it is, the more successful it will be, with the environment winning every step of the way. (If only because laptops draw less electricity than the average desktop, being smaller.)
If environmental gains don’t do it for you, let’s consider it economically. GDP will win, because GDP always wins – but I have a lot of problems with GDP. Let’s talk instead about a more meaningful measure of economic and general wellbeing: the Genuine Progress Indicator, the updated version of the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, which is among the most respected alternate measures of wellbeing. The GPI is calculated by summing all the things in society that are considered to be desirable expenditures, including personal consumption and public spending, and removing those things which are considered to be undesirable, including costs that exist to prevent things you don’t want – like paying for immunisations (because you’re trying to protect against diseases) or insurance – and environmental damage.
For this index, a certain number of work hours are considered to contribute to wellbeing, after which they start to detract from wellbeing. Because working thirty-five hours a week to feed your kids and be able to go out is good, but having to work fifty hours because your employer says you have to pretty much sucks. Transport to and from work is also considered. A certain amount of commuting time is considered ‘good’, because it’s attached to work you want to do, and then time after that starts detracting, because sitting in traffic also sucks.
If wireless internet is introduced, and becomes viable and widespread, and employers respond fairly, commuting time on public transport may become work time. In which casework time can decrease, or people can be paid more, and either way their overall wellbeing should increase. This does rely on having decent employers who respond fairly, which I accept is not a given. Alternately, commuters can use the wireless internet for non-work purposes, like paying bills, or for leisure. In either case, ineffective commuting time decreases, because the time is being used usefully, and leisure time will increase. In which case GPI will also increase. I don’t see the downside.
This calculation is of course only based on people using internet while commuting to work. However, wireless internet could also make public transport more appealing in other cases. For example, who would now take the train from Sydney to Brisbane? It takes a day on a train or two hours on a plane. But if you could use the internet on that train, that day could become valuable time – you could even negotiate to have it included as work time, requiring you to use less time for holidays. This would be less effective if Australia ever got around to building the fast train, but at fifteen years behind schedule, I’ve lost some faith in that.
Yes, it may be expensive and a shemozzle and if the NSW government can screw it up, god knows they will. But if we do this properly? We might be onto something useful, something genuinely good for the environment, and I’m all for that.