Management & Operations

Pub Perspective: A British Viewpoint

Posted on February 24, 2015 by James Blue, GM

As he mentioned in his last editorial (November/December 2014 issue, pg. 44), Frank Di Giacomo is “retiring” as publisher of METRO, but is still very much involved in the magazine, working on strategic partnerships and other projects as VP/publisher emeritus. Fortunately, I have the privilege of working closely with Frank, and he will continue to impart his decades of industry experience and knowledge to me and to METRO, in general. Thank you, Frank, for the fantastic work you’ve done in delivering a first-rate publication, and thank you for passing on the baton to me.

U.K. separates commercial and policy concerns
For my first column, I decided to compare the U.S. public transport industry with that of the U.K., where I grew up. In doing so, I detect two very different underlying philosophies at work. What’s even more interesting, though, is how the philosophies of the two countries’ industries are beginning to converge, which has lessons for each.

In the U.K., there is not much dispute that public transport is considered a vital part of the country’s infrastructure and essential to economic development. British gasoline taxes are about 61% of the total price of petrol at the pump, according to a recent article in the London-based The Telegraph, which is the equivalent of about $8.27 per U.S. gallon. This means that the decision whether to drive is a pretty conscious one and other travel options are important. In the U.S., driving is almost considered a right — the word “freeways” is revealing.

Differences in distances also matter. Many English have never even been to Scotland, but Edinburgh and London are about as far apart as Los Angeles and San Francisco or Washington, D.C. and New York. But you would never hear many people in any of those cities saying the same thing about their counterparts.

Ironically, though, U.S. public transport is far more socialized than the American industry, a result of significant changes made during the 1980s. Much of this was because the British economy and government budget were in dire straits. To Brits, the heavily subsidized U.S. industry looks a lot like the 1970s, when local governments directly ran bus and rail services. Now, with a few exceptions, public transport services are privately provided, either through franchises, subsidized contracts or even open competition in many local markets with several private operators.

Government still has an important role, however. The county passenger transport executives are similar to the regional transit authorities in the U.S. and Canada, except that they focus on regulating safety and quality, and manage the public investments and ensure that everyone has access to the services they need.

Both can learn from each other
This is not to say that U.S. and American professionals have little to say to each other. On the contrary, many European operators are taking their expertise in operating in a more commercial environment to interested U.S. cities, such as Las Vegas, San Diego, Denver, New York and Phoenix. And many in the U.S. are proposing a higher gas tax, especially when prices are so low, not only to help pay for greater investment but also to help incentivize using public transport, just as Europe has done.

I look forward to such exchanges in my new role here at METRO. Please drop me a line at [email protected].

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