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A modern public transport system or a driving distraction?

The Prime Minister was mistaken to assert we have to first dramatically reduce our reliance on cars before we can begin developing a modern public transport system.

In a recent televised interview, Prime Minister Hani al-Mulki provided some interesting insights into his views on transportation policy. He asserted we could have had an advanced public transport system in 2005 or 2006 but that today, it had become near impossible.

The reasoning provided by al-Mulki was that there were simply too many cars on the roads to allow buses to freely move about to any fixed timetable.

He then outlined his solution: the imposition of a series of fiscal measures to curb car ownership and bring down the number of private vehicles on the streets. “If I reduce the number of cars,” he said, “I will get… in 10 years… to an advanced public transport system.”

Al-Mulki concluded the segment by blaming consumerism for the rising number of private cars.

I find the PM’s observations disappointing. The logic behind them goes against basic principles of transportation planning and confuses symptoms with causes. The large number of cars can be attributed to a young and growing population with ever-increasing mobility needs. With no reliable public transport system, many have found buying a car to be their only option in getting around and being economically active and productive.

There are many cars because we have no reliable public transport services, and it is not the other way around, as the PM claims.

Naturally, if the logic behind identifying a problem is flawed, then the proposed solutions are likely to be futile at best. In this case, however, the solutions proposed by al-Mulki could have negative economic consequences.

Transport—going from point to point on any mode—has a demand that does not stem from a person’s craving to simply move around. Rather, it is derived from their need to access activities, be they economic, educational, social, or otherwise. Sound transportation policies, specifically at the urban level, are ones that are designed to channel that demand in such a way that public transport, walking, and other sustainable modes get a larger share of trips. Integrating transport and urban planning, investing in public transport infrastructure, and enforcing accessible sidewalk regulations are only a few examples of such policies and means.

Many policies also use pricing as a powerful tool to shift demand from one mode to another. Reducing public transport fares (by increasing subsidies), imposing congestion or parking charges, and levying taxes and fees on owning, using, insuring, or fueling a car are among the many ways in which pricing is used to affect change in transport demand.

The key prerequisite for implementing many of these policies is the availability of viable transport alternative. Otherwise, demand will be suppressed, rather than shifted from one mode to another. This is especially crucial for something like transport, which has a derived demand, as explained above. Suppressing transport demand may result in suppressing economic activity and reducing access to jobs and educational opportunities.

Rather than hiking taxes and customs on owning a car and blaming “consumerism” for the rising adoption of the private automobile, the government should prioritize public transport. And there’s much to be done on that front. For starters, the government could establish the Passenger Transport Support Fund, in accordance with the Passenger Transport Law that came into effect almost a year ago.

Once Jordanians have viable and reliable options for moving around, then we can start talking about imposing more barriers on owning a car.