How London keeps getting public transport wrong

The BBC today reports that “New Routemaster’s [London’s hybrid buses] battery problems mean many run on just diesel.” According to John Murphy, Unite union’s regional officer “…The common practice now is to take the batteries out of the buses so effectively these very expensive environmentally friendly buses are just running on diesel.”

He and other union leaders then go on to conclude that the cause of the problem is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s incompetence and therefore that the solution is to get some other guy in charge. But that won’t stop government-run public transport being expensive, wasteful and of stagnating quality.

When a business man or woman makes a mistake they suffer the consequences. When a bureaucrat makes a mistake (in this case investing lots of money in unreliable/unsuitable tech) *you* suffer the consequences. As a tax payer it’s certainly your money that’s been malinvested and as a commuter it’s your transport service (the only one that’s allowed to exist) that’s been lowered in quality.

When it’s someone else’s money funding your schemes and there’s no chance of you paying the cost of any losses, which is always the case for bureaucrats and politicians, there’s less incentive to exercise due diligence and greater incentive to take more risk. This makes bad investments and risky choices much more likely and means budgets are almost never met. No amount of checks, balances or intelligence will ever change that.

To paraphrase economist Thomas Sowell, it is hard to imagine a more inefficient and stupid way of providing public transportation than by putting its provision in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong.

The Mayor of London blew something in the region of £43 million extra of tax payers’ money on hybrid buses, which are now, apparently, little more than poorly performing diesel engines. Compounding this staggering waste of wealth (wealth that only exists because productive people in society created it, let’s not forget) is the fact that The Mayor and his office still continue to receive their generous remuneration.

The businessman goes bust when he makes a bad enough investment. No so the bureaucrat. He carries on as if nothing has happened. “It’s only money”, he shrugs, “there’s plenty more where that came from.”

This is just one example. Imagine how many costly malinvestments are being made every day in every government department and local council by individuals who, by design of our political system, pay no price for their mistakes.

The solution? Well, the solution to a problem is always the opposite. We must put the provision of public transportation in the hands of people who pay the price for making mistakes and who therefore are less likely to make risky or bad investments – i.e. the UK’s entrepreneurs and business men and women.

This doesn’t necessarily mean just the Richard Branson’s of our society, although I’m sure he could do a wonderful job with public transport in London. It could also mean, say, a guy who rents out bikes all over town, or a women that runs a shuttle bus business. It would mean competition. competing bus, train and taxi services. Downward pressure on prices, innovation – luxury even. We live in one of the most productive and wealthy cities in the world, this is absolutely possible! It should be happening already. but it’s not. Government stands in the way.

Whatever the solutions are that emerge from a free market, on whatever scale they are and whomever is providing them, there’s every reason to believe that we’ll be delighted by how good they are and how affordable. If only we’d let people try! Just like we happily let people try to improve upon or produce more of every thing that sustains us and enriches our lives – from real apples to Apple computers. Our standard of living and the wonderful world of abundance in which we live would not exist without this economic freedom for individuals. We must expand this freedom into the public transport market and banish government from it. And it must never come back.

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