By Aloysius Chia
Mr. Gerard Ee, in an article in The Sunday Times (“Want better transport? Pay for it.”, 25 May 2014), mentions something that is arguably, the most ridiculous anyone would expect from a former head of the Public Transport Council to mention.
In an interview, he commented, “if you treasure your time and treasure your comfort, you pay a premium…if you value your time and comfort even more, you buy a car. And then ultimately, you get a chauffeur.”
Not least the simple minded tone towards average commuters, in which he suggests that the average commuter does not treasure time nor comfort, these are the kind of comments that are reflective of the absolute lack of understanding regarding the state of public transportation in the first place.
If Mr. Gerald Ee’s is thinking simply that paying more will lead to time saved and comfort improvements, he is in for a rude shock. For as someone who presumably drives a car (he ‘occasionally’ takes public transport), he will not be able to get anywhere.
Why is this so?
Consider this: As someone who drives on public roads, he has to pay a form of tax (COE) before he buys a car.
Now, he assumes that everyone who takes public transport are unable to buy a car. Not simply because people are unwilling to pay for the additional COE, which makes a car a lot more expensive and reduces demand. Those who can afford a car with COE may not want to buy it even if they could.
This form of tax that is needed to buy a car, which Mr Ee, who sweetly drives on the road as much as he likes, clearly do not in any way in itself reduce demand.
It has to be adjusted based on how many people per year bid for it, how many cars are scrapped, and the costs of cars. It cannot simply be set at a fixed price.
This regulation of the roads, which makes it a lot more easier and comfortable for private car owners like Mr. Ee to drive about, is dependent on those who could otherwise buy a car (with COE) but choose not to.
It is also dependent on those who could afford the price of the car, but not its COE, to forgo wanting to buy it.
The COE, which controls the number of cars on the road in the name of efficiency and the willingness of others to pay for it, is a form of intangible subsidy for those who are willing to fork out the price.
It does not mean at all that those who are unwilling cannot afford to buy a car.
Conversely, if there was no such tax at all, the number of cars on the road will increase exponentially so much so that it will make it a lot more uncomfortable for drivers like Mr. Ee.
Which leads to the comments that Mr. Ee has made.
The only reason why private car owners can drive so comfortably is because people have accepted the regulation of car ownership. It is not because car owners are able to pay more.
It is because of regulation that favors private car owners, not because of some magical amount that equates comfort, that is why they can drive around without the traffic jams and endless hours they have to wait in order to get to their destinations, like so many other countries around the region that do not have the COE or taxes that make it hard for ordinary people to afford cars.
In other words, the only reason why people are able to accept such a deal of cars with COE in a way that does not benefit them directly is that they expect public transportation to be efficient and comfortable.
They are willing to trade off their ability to buy a car in order to use public transport; it is not the other way round.
Thus, for someone who was supposedly the head of the Public Transport Council, which decides on the setting of public transport fares, it is extremely dubious that such a person would be there in the first place.
Not just that the comments which are simplistic and childish to say the least, it lacks any form of sensibility towards the needs of commuters at all. Paying lip service to a “you get what you pay”, as if “paying you will get what you want” sort of thinking.
People have the right to demand efficiency, comfort and consistency for what is a trade-off that they have made, and have focused on public transportation in a way that have given leeway to the those who decide to own cars.
They are not merely complaining about something which they are merely making out of thin air, or are even being unreasonable, because in accepting car regulations, they have no other choice.
Let’s hope the next head of the Public Transport Council (PTC) has a better grasp of what is going on, as it evaluates future price adjustments.
(Original photo credit- ST)