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Main dynamics affecting Local Public Transport and action areas to inject new life in an essential sector for the country’s growth
The quality of local public transport has a significant effect on the country’s competitiveness. An inadequate public transport system contributes to traffic congestion, which in 2011 cost Italy some €11 billion, according to Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport estimates.
Inefficiencies in local public transport are a burden on public finances, as transport represents the biggest expenditure item for regions after health care, but also because under the current allocation mechanisms, inefficiencies in local public transport companies are borne by the local authorities of reference. Moreover, inadequate urban and suburban transport imposes additional costs on people, producing a dampening effect on domestic demand, which is already affected by the economic recession.
Greater use of cars for travel within Italian cities of medium-large size, connected with the inadequacy of the local public transport network and the low service level offered, costs Italian households an estimated extra €6 billion/year compared to the European average, representing a kind of mobility inefficiency spread.
Despite the difficulties in the sector and an average service level that does not meet European standards, since the start of the economic recession general demand for mobility has dropped, but the share of demand for local public transport has grown. This shows how the recession has, on the one hand, reduced the need for travel but, on the other, led people to choose public transport, which is cheaper, over cars. Although it cannot be considered a signal of real change in transport preference, the phenomenon represents an important opportunity for Italy to improve its competitiveness and growth.
Increasing the share of public transport in urban travel is a key objective in the general interest, not only because of the expected economic benefit it would deliver but in terms of the positive impact that a less “car-centred” conception of mobility would have on the environment, health and the efficient use of energy resources.
Especially in large urban centres, efficient public transport, able to guarantee suitable levels of access to urban and suburban areas through reliable, quality services, would attract new demand and, in this way, help relaunch the sector.
A concise measure of the adequacy of local public transport in Italy can be deduced from a comparison of the national underground train network and those of other major European countries. In this case, Italy lags behind in terms of the number of lines but also in terms of network size, bearing in mind that London alone has more underground train lines than all of Italy and a network that is more than double the length.
Any analysis of services, however, needs to consider not just networks but also rolling stock. In this case, besides the mere quantitative figure, i.e., the number of vehicles in circulation, the “quality” of the vehicles needs to be assessed, which can gauged initially from the average age of vehicles. The fleet of wheeled vehicles in Italy has quite a high average age (11.6 years vs. the European average of 7 years), which shows no signs of falling - in 2012 the indicator grew for the seventh consecutive year.
Clearly public transport companies are finding it difficult to invest in their fleets in an economic phase characterised by capital account cuts, but the trend also highlights how the age of the fleet adversely impacts demand and affects the operating costs of the transport companies by raising average maintenance costs connected with the age of the vehicles.
Yet while the investment cost needed to restore the quality level of fleets is high, there is the apparently contradictory indicator given by the load factor, or utilisation rate, of local public transport vehicles, which, although growing (between 2007 and 2012 the total load factor rose by 1 percentage point), is still extremely low - in 2012, the load factor for Italian local public transport was below 25%, meaning that a quarter of local public transport vehicles are not actually used.
This suggests that, in quantitative terms, public transport availability is higher than the real need to satisfy demand. Thus it would seem more of matter of reorganising the current management approach rather than increasing the number of vehicles, especially as concerns ratios between large urban areas and centres of smaller size.
Striking the right balance between demand for public transport and the supply of services is, therefore, a prerequisite for any process aimed at turning around the sector. Regardless of which development model is theorised for local public transport in Italy, it is evident that an improvement in the demand/supply match would have a significant impact not only on service quality but also on the profitability of transport companies, which is already undermined by cuts to public spending and the high levels of inefficiency which, in many cases, characterise operations.
The management of local public transport services is made all the more troublesome by the complicated and unstable regulatory framework, characterised by an immense number of provisions which are often in conflict.
The industrialisation of local public transport today would appear both indispensable and a far-off goal. Despite numerous attempts by lawmakers to introduce elements of efficiency and competition into the sector, local public transport continues to be plagued by significant issues of a regulatory, industrial and economic nature. Decisive action urgently needs to be taken with transport companies, which must regain control of their revenue means and take full responsibility for operations.
The cost of “inaction” is too high. Slowing down the process of change and holding back the investment that the local public transport sector needs means forgoing around €17.5 billion in value added and 465,000 new jobs. These are major figures and, especially in the current economic cycle, they speak loudly of the how important a driver the sector is for the country’s growth.