GREENS MOTION: Free public transport for Seniors

Mark moved a motion calling on the State Government to extend free public transport to seniors to include all weekday services as well as weekends and public holidays.

 I move:

That this council calls on the state government to extend free public transport to seniors to include all weekday services as well as weekends and public holidays.

The importance of independence and mobility for seniors cannot be underestimated. There have been many studies over many years that have shown that, as people get older, the more they can stay connected to their communities, the more they can stay engaged and the more they can stay active the better their lives will be at an individual level, and the better society will be because we have all this experience and enthusiasm still engaged in community activities.

The program that has been in existence for many years to enable seniors to travel for free on public transport at certain times is one that we should wholeheartedly support. An evaluation was undertaken two years ago by the University of Adelaide, which looked at seniors who were using free public transport, what sort of things they were using it for and what impact it had on their lives. The report confirmed what most of us know intuitively.

It was written up in the newspaper back in January 2016, under the heading, 'Free public transport critical for seniors' wellbeing'. I will just read a couple of sentences from that news report:

'Adelaide senior citizens are making an average of 150,000 rides on public transport every week, with the provision of free public transport to seniors during off-peak times playing a major role in their independence and wellbeing.'

That's according to new research from the University of Adelaide, which has studied the impact of free public transport on older people.

The comprehensive study used a combination of data: travel information obtained from thousands of Seniors Cards used on public transport; a survey of more than 1,300 people conducted by the Office for the Ageing; and, travel diaries filled out by more than 60 older people.

'The results of our study are a resounding vote of support for the provision of free public transport to Seniors Card holders, and helps us to better understand what role this transport plays in their lives,'

says study leader Dr Helen Feist, Acting Director of the Australian Population and Migration Research Centre at the University of Adelaide.

The article goes on:

'Most activities of daily living—such as shopping and paying the bills—are conducted in the local neighbourhood and involve other forms of transport. However, public transport is often used for other life-enriching activities, such as volunteering, or civic and social engagements, going to the movies, visiting friends or travelling to the city for a day out,' Dr Feist says.

The article concludes:

Dr Feist says improved mobility provides older people with a sense of independence and control.

'It gives them autonomy as well as feelings of active citizenship and belonging. These issues are critical to people's wellbeing in later life. As Australia's population ages, the ability to engage independently with the community through adequate and reliable transport is becoming more imperative,' she says.

I think that possibly tells us what we all intuitively knew, but there is nothing like a good academic study to remind us of what should be obvious.

So the question then arises: if free public transport is having such positive benefits for older South Australians during the periods when it is free, then if we were to extend that period and enable and encourage more seniors to use public transport more often, then those benefits would, it seems clear, be magnified.

At present, seniors can travel for free at all times except for what we would think of as peak periods, that is, the morning weekday peak and the afternoon weekday peak. People might think that is fair enough, that we need to free up seats on buses, trains and trams for people who are paying a fare and are going to work or to school, but I am not sure that stands up to much scrutiny because the sorts of things that older people are doing, whilst some will be personal and social, which are good things in themselves, include, for many other older people, volunteering, and the hours that they are called upon to volunteer do not neatly fit into the interpeak period, and they are not necessarily on weekends or at times when it is free to travel.

If you go down Rundle Mall, for example, you will see a number of older people who volunteer as guides and if you go to the courthouse, down in the Sir Samuel Way Building, there are a number of older people who volunteer as guides because people turn up to court and often get lost; it is a very foreign environment for most people. Older people are out there doing these things and they do them during peak periods as well as during off-peak periods.

I think it makes sense to bite the bullet and spend the relatively small amount of money it would take to say to seniors, 'You can travel for free whenever'. I will come back to the cost in a moment, because I am not suggesting that it is free but that it is good value. They are two different things.

In the lead-up to the election a number of interest groups put out their manifestos or their election requests, and the one from National Seniors included, under the heading of transport, the request to extend free travel to South Australian Seniors Card holders to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The rationale for the National Seniors policy was that flexible access to public transport greatly enhances social inclusion and the ability of older people to live independently. Free public transport is currently restricted to off-peak times—Monday to Friday 9am to 3pm and 7pm to midnight, weekends and public holidays. Extending free travel times would improve the effectiveness of public transport as an alternative to driving and help older people remain mobile. This measure is likely to attract more patronage from seniors and increase opportunities for seniors to fully participate in their local community.

That brings me to the question that I know occupies the Treasurer's mind, and I am sure the mind of many other people as well: what would this cost? I am glad people ask that question because, as I think I have said before, the Greens were one of the very few groups—if not the only group—to use the Parliamentary Budget Advisory Service in the last election. I put to the PBAS that this was a policy we wanted costed and they came back with a detailed costing. I will not go through all the numbers but, in a nutshell, the grand total of revenue forgone—in other words, seniors travelling for free at a time when they would currently have to pay a concession fare—is about $1½ million a year; $1½ million is all it would cost to provide free public transport at all times to all Seniors Card holders. I am not going to say that $1½ million is nothing but, in the overall scheme of things, it is peanuts.

The Hon. J.E. Hanson: Per year?

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Per year, yes; $1½ million per year is all it would cost to let people travel for free. I could make all sorts of glib comparisons—maybe it is the equivalent of the drinks bill at the Premier's Christmas party; I have not been to the Premier's Christmas party so I do not know how good his drinks are—but honestly $1½ million, in the scheme of the public sector and public spending, is not a lot of money and I am sure it could be found. If we were going to do any sort of cost-benefit analysis I think the evidence so far shows that an investment like that would pay for itself in spades. We would have more people out there engaging in their communities and using public transport.

You could say that if the provision of free public transport during peak periods became very popular that more services might need to be put on. Well, I say bring that on. My three decades of work in the public transport space show that it is the lack of frequency of services that is one of the main disincentives for people using public transport, so if seniors started to flood our peak hour trams, trains and buses and the government had to put on more services, what a great thing that would be for the whole of society.

This is a motion that should be supported. It calls on the government to have a good look at it and to fund it and I am pleased, on behalf of the Greens, that we have made life easy for the government in getting it costed. As I said, it is consistent with the calls made by seniors groups in the lead-up to the election.