Co-operating on Transport

politics transport, co-operatives, nationalisation

For quite some time, I’ve believed very firmly that public services should be public — not private, run for the benefit of their shareholders to maximise their profits, but public, run for the public good, to maximise the service provided to the people who use the public service. There’s a simple reason for this — while a privately-provided service might operate in the best interests of its users if that provides the maximum profit, if there’s another way to make a larger profit (like, say, screwing over the customers any way they can) then they will do so. Further, many public services are natural monopolies (it’s difficult, for example, to run multiple competing train services along the same route, without causing accidents), so it’s hard to ensure competition (which, hopefully, would keep prices down).

However, more recently, I’ve become less convinced that having all services centralised under Government control is necessarily a good thing — rather, it’s just another sort of monopoly, and even with the most benevolent government in history that’s less than ideal. It also limits regional autonomy, which is often desired in public services — Devon and Cornwall are very different to Greater London and should be run in different ways.

However, there’s a third wa—no, wait. We’ve had a third way and it was just like the first one. How about a fourth way? Public services, public ownership (“common ownership of the means of production”, even) does not require ownership by the government — why not ownership by the public?

There are probably a dozen different ways in which a co-operatively-run transport system could work, but the model which occurs to me is one of many small, regional co-operatives running local bus services (and metro, and so on). Think Transport for London, but run by the citizens (London is possibly too big an area for a single co-operative — perhaps one per borough would work better, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in specifics — the only way to know is to try and see what works). The boundaries of these co-operatives might coincide with council boundaries, but that’s not a requirement — in some cases, it might be more practical for an area to belong to a different co-operative, or to more than one (Torpoint and Saltash spring to mind, on the Cornish side of the river but with regular bus services to Plymouth as well as Liskeard).

These co-operatives would be responsible for all the public transport infrastructure in a small area — managing the local railway station and lines, maintaining bus stops as well as planning and organising services and maintaining the vehicle fleet (of course, there’d be nothing stopping someone starting a private bus company, but why use a private bus when you can use one in which you have a say in the running of?). How, though, would transport on a larger scale work — say national rail services, or (assuming London was split into several co-operatives) services across the capital?

Co-operatives with a stake in the service (both those with stops or stations as well as those responsible for the track used, even if a long-distance service passes through the area without stopping) would work together to negotiate the services needed to best benefit the users. This would work on both a small scale (Plymouth to Torbay bus services, with Ivybridge, Totnes and Newton Abbot consulted as to how many services should stop in each and how many should pass them by, as well as arranging matters so that the buses are sensibly spaced out) and a larger one — the Edinburgh to Penzance service (which would obviously involve many separate groups, all of whom should have a say in how the service is run).

More specifics are difficult to give — it’s difficult to say what will work and what won’t without trying it, and correcting problems as they arise. Probably someone with more knowledge of co-operatives could say more about the practical details that I could; this is just a general suggestion from me.

This was written for week 2 of project52.