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Filling more Metro bus seats while cutting down on traffic could be as simple as offering travel incentives for older passengers, which is precisely what already happens in every other Australian state and territory.

How many times have you watched a Metro bus rumble past with just the driver and a handful of passengers on board? And how many times have you grumbled about the worsening traffic?

Looking at the big picture, Tasmania’s investment in public transport is woefully low, with Commonwealth Grants Commission figures showing the state invests less than a third of the national average per capita on public transport. Indeed Tasmania spent just $196 per capita in 2019/20, the lowest of any Australian state and territory, with the national average $614.

Retired transport economist Peter Kruup has come up with a modest plan to increase public transport patronage and ease traffic by encouraging older Tasmanians to leave their cars at home and take the bus for free.

In the recently released Better Public Transport for Tasmanian Seniors report, he makes a compelling case. Prepared for National Seniors Australia, the report highlights the fact that every other capital city in Australia offers free or heavily subsidised bus travel for seniors.

So why don’t we do it in Hobart? When it comes to public transport provision for the over-60s across Australia, Mr Kruup says the southern capital sticks out “like a sore thumb”. He argues that, although concessions are offered to seniors in Tasmania, the fares are still viewed as too high. Indeed the cost of bus fares has increased by about 33 per cent in the past decade. That’s more than double the rate of inflation over the same period.

Patronage, meanwhile, has declined. During 2020, the use of public transport dropped by about 15 per cent, with anecdotal evidence suggesting the fall in public transport use for seniors has been even greater. An avid user of public transport,

Mr Krupp notes most bus services run with many empty seats during the off-peak period between 9am and 3pm. These could be justifiably filled by freewheeling seniors at no extra operating cost. Seniors, after all, have fewer time constraints than students or people travelling to and from work and are more flexible in their travel patterns.

For her part, Mary Parsissons, who represents National Seniors Australia, believes free public transport would help reduce reliance on cars which are very expensive to run for those on a limited budget and pricey to park. “The buses run empty and we all park beside them in our cars,” she says of the present situation in Hobart.

Yes, there’s clearly great merit in the free travel for seniors plan. At an estimated cost of just $300,000 per year statewide, it’s a budget[1]friendly move that would not only benefit older Tasmanians by encouraging them to get out and about in their communities, but also help in some small way to reduce traffic congestion.

The bottom line is we need a holistic response to our traffic dilemma and Mr Kruup’s solution is a piece of a much bigger puzzle. Another is an expanded and permanent River Derwent ferry service, now being trialled on a small scale by the State Ggovernment.

It’s not just a case of building more roads. It’s about offering an expanded ferry service, reintroducing passenger rail to the city, providing better walking options and bicycle infrastructure, and an efficient, affordable bus service.

It beggars belief that the State Government isn’t prepared to get on board and spend a relatively small amount to enact Mr Kruup’s plan and improve the lives of thousands of Tasmanian seniors. It’s high time we came into line with the rest of Australia to give them a “fare” go.

Published as a Talking Point in the Mercury newspaper on 14 September 2021.