• Opinion
  • August 14, 2019
  • 11 minutes
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Get on the bus: the case for free public transport

Opinion: Buses beat cars — so what are we waiting for?

This opinion article was written by dr. Michel van Hulten, retired Dutch politician, former Senator, MP and Under-Minister of Transport (1971-1977). For more like this, see our smart cities newsfeed. 


Free public transport is no longer a utopian dream — it exists: it is a reality.

In Estonia’s capital Tallinn, in municipalities in Poland, Sweden, France, in Chengdu in China, and in several cities in the US they have fare-free public transport (FFPT).

All seniors in the UK can now ride the bus for free, and for children everywhere under the age of 4 the ride is free as well. The list goes on and on.

So why are so many countries now making public transport fare-free?

One of the reasons that Tallinn implemented a fare-free system in 2013 was that the city already subsidised the public transport by 70 percent, and felt that it was hard to explain why such a hefty amount of public funding should be spent on an operation that was still too expensive for some to use.

Even in countries that have free public transport, costs still need to be covered

In 2012 Chengdu made many buses fare-free daily between 5:00 am and 7:00 am to counter road congestion after 7:00 am. As a by-effect, this change also alleviated congestion after 17:00 pm as people who travel early to work also return home earlier.

In the region of Flanders (and many other places) FFPT helps the seniors, and as a side effect, the money saved on public transport is predominantly used in local shopping strengthening local centres.

There are many more examples like these, which you can see on this detailed world map of free public transport and in this paper from 2015 which I authored.

Making the radical shift

Implementing fare-free public transport inevitably leads to a radical shift in transportation policy.

But even in countries that have free public transport, costs still need to be covered. Drivers need to be paid, and busses need to be maintained, so when users don’t pay for their ticket, someone else has to. But the question is: who pays and when do they do it?

FFPT entails a shift from a system where “You pay because you use” towards paying “because the service is available for use to you”. We already do this with forms of transport. Just think of the elevator or escalator: the investment costs of these forms of vertical transport were included in the initial financing of the buildings they are found in, and in the functional costs which are factored into rents and dues to associations of users.

Why not do the same for horizontal transport in the built environment?

For people who need to go from A to B, it would mean that, if they can make the choice between private car or public transport, the latter one becomes more appealing.

As with all taxation for “common goods” for which we pay communally, those who earn more, pay more tax, while those who earn less, pay less. It is the standard that everybody contributes according to his means, per definition, not according to his use.

Free public transport is a great equaliser

The consequence of this radical shift is that the rich pay, and the poor ride.

On average, car ownership and car use is higher in the upper income-groups than it is in the lower income groups. Likewise, use of public transport is higher among low-income groups, compared to the richer strata of society.

Fare-free public transport, therefore, means that those who pay more tax for FFPT use less of it, and those that pay less tax use more of it. Therefore FFPT helps fight poverty.

An important side-effect is that money saved on transportation costs is freed up for other expenses, which strengthens the local economy, in particular in weaker parts of our urban environments.

Belgium is a melting pot for free public transport

When FFPT for seniors was introduced in Flanders in 2002 for anyone aged 65 and over — some 1 million people — it was calculated that an investment by the regional government of €15 ($16,8) per senior per year could cover the costs for the public transport company.

The fact that quite a number of those seniors were not interested in using public transport helped, as some will always prefer individual and private transportation services and have the financial means to do so. Studies from the Dutch provinces of Zeeland and Drenthe also resulted in similar financial costs of approximately €15 yearly per senior citizen.

It is now more urgent than ever before to think about how we want to design the future mobility in our societies.

Belgium is in more than one respect an interesting country as the scale of implementation of FFPT has been larger here than anywhere else, and the policy has been in place for more than ten years. A major social experiment!

That it was partly rolled back had more to do with a political party shift (from left to right) than the actual policy merits of public transport.

At the same time, there are several important trends to be aware of. Across Western societies, these include:

A trend towards concentration of government services, increases in the distances between citizens, and a growth in the urban built-up space.

In the Netherlands, each person now take up 400 m2 of urbanised area, whereas 40 years ago the average was 100 m2 per person. This means that the distance from person to person grew from 10 to 20 meters. Demographic trends also mean, that we are — on average — getting older. In other words, our societies are becoming “greyer”.

Based on this we can conclude that the demand for public transport is and will be growing. But the number of bus and tram-stops is lowering, with fewer routes.

But this is not all. There are several other positive external benefits of implementing FFPT. These include:

  • Health: better air quality, as the number of cars on the roads decreases
  • Safety: as the number of cars decrease, we see fewer traffic accidents and traffic deaths
  • Environment: better air- and soil-quality
  • Climate: Fewer CO2-emissions

In addition, FFPT also leads to two important political benefits. We diminish our reliance on failed states that sell us their oil, such as Saudi Arabia and Russia, and secondly, we give less power to the lobbying of car-, oil- and roadbuilding companies.

Others join the bandwagon

Undoubtedly lured by these benefits, the number of cities and regions that are implementing FFPT is constantly growing.

Per 1 September 2018, the French harbour city of Dunkirk has made its public transport free of charge at all times, after a two-year trial period during weekends.

By 1 September 2018 Dunkirk became effectively “Europe’s largest agglomeration to install free public (bus) transport in the whole region”, all days of the week for everybody. Dunkirk with its 200.000 inhabitants tested free public transport on Saturdays and Sundays for two years and saw the usage frequency rise respectively with 29% and 78% on these days. From the beginning of September, the region extended the offer to all days of the week.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the local government in Paris and its larger metropolitan area, Ile-de-France, is also thinking about it. Without believing in it too much, French newspaper, Le Monde, reports. Nevertheless, in Paris a feasibility study has been commissioned.

At the end of 2018, the coalition government in Luxembourg announced plans to abolish charges for anyone using trains, trams and buses. Beginning in the spring of 2020, public transport across the country will be free for all. The measure extends an existing scheme, allowing those under the age of 20 to travel free on the country’s public transportation network.

It is now more urgent than ever before to think about how we want to design the future mobility in our societies. Because of climate change, we have to rethink our urban life. More and more people, crowded in growing urban spaces, are in need of motorised transportation.

Making fare-free public transport the dominant system of transportation in the urban fabric is a smart policy. By doing this, it will in turn influence urban planning and city-life, making these more sustainable and future-proof, offering equal opportunities to all.

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