Should public transport be free?

Should public transport be free?

Are you used to spending hundreds of euros on public transport every year? It does not necessarily have to be: in some countries, all travel by bus, train and tram may indeed be completely free. Companies that operate public transport in different places around the world seem willing to risk lower income to find out if freeing public transport can help reduce car travel and make cities work better.

Despite To date, experiments in this direction have produced conflicting evidence, giving up paying for vehicles has other advantages, from guaranteeing equal access to transport to punctuality of buses; the costs would then be offset by savings on ticketing systems or checks.

Although not paying for the means might seem strange, experts draw a parallel between public transport and health, libraries and schools: services that some people exploit more than others, but which are still funded by the community. "Eliminating tariffs means telling people that they have the right to travel regardless of their financial means, because it is a public good," says Jenny Mcarthur, an urban infrastructure researcher at University College London. The need for a change of mentality, on the other hand, is urgent: road transport is responsible for ten percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, while the surge in fuel prices puts a strain on household budgets.

Examples from the world For this reason, several cities and towns around the world are focusing on free public transport. The latest to join the list is Spain, which has been offering free train rides on selected routes for a few months, to alleviate the pressure on commuters caused by the rising cost of living. Many other European countries, meanwhile, already offer free or heavily discounted rides. Germany has introduced a pass of 9 euros per month, Ireland has reduced fares for the first time in 75 years and Italy will distribute a one-time coupon of up to 60 euros for public transport to low-income workers [here we have explained to whom it belongs and how to obtain it, ed]. Luxembourg and Estonia also eliminated tickets to persuade commuters to abandon their car several years ago, the same motivation that prompted Austria to introduce the € 3 daily Klimaticket for domestic transport last year.

Although free rides lead to an increase in users, they are not necessarily people who usually use the car. In Estonia, free transport was used to a greater extent by those traveling on foot or by bicycle, a trend that is repeated elsewhere. This is a problem, as pedestrians and cyclists produce fewer emissions than public transport.

Assessing the impact of short-term trials is difficult. In Copenhagen, car use initially declined within a month of the introduction of free vehicles, but eventually people reverted to old habits. However, this is not always the case: an analysis of German traffic conducted in June, a few weeks after the introduction of 9 euro per month tickets, showed fewer cars in circulation and shorter travel times in most some of the cities examined.

The first country to offer free public transport was Luxembourg in 2020, a country that is small in size, is notoriously rich, and where tickets were already accessible. Two years later, traffic has remained the same or even worsened, at least partially due to the fact that large numbers of people who cannot afford to live in the country move from across the border.

So if on the one hand, making vehicles free can and does increase the use of public transport, on the other hand these policies do not necessarily reduce the number of cars on the roads. However, free transport has benefits that go beyond the environment. In Spain, free tickets were introduced to lighten the burden of inflation and rising fuel prices, rather than to directly reduce emissions.

The benefits depend on the context Free train tickets may appeal motorists to abandon their car when fuel prices are high, traffic is congested or when traveling for pleasure, while for low-income people who cannot afford a car, free transport represents a significant saving. br>
The local context is important. In Australia, the Tasmanian government made buses free for five weeks to offset the rising cost of living. Although the project has been rated as a success, the researchers argue that expanding this policy to other areas of the country would benefit wealthier residents, as public transport in Australia is mostly used by residents of urban centers or central suburbs. . According to the researchers, the farther people live from central areas, the more likely they are to rely on cars to get to work.

In Spain, free tickets will primarily benefit people living in urban areas and that can access regional trains, known as Media Distancia, and suburban railways, called Cercanías. "85 percent of daily trips on Cercanías take place in Madrid and Barcelona," says Pablo Muñoz Nieto, part of the Confederación de Ecologistas en Acción group of environmental activists. Nieto adds that regional trains have suffered from a lack of investment and many areas lack services. "Why want a free train ticket if you don't have a train?" He wonders.

As for the United States, free public transportation could be a tool for promoting equity between ethnic groups. As activist Destiny Thomas notes, US transportation systems "rely on the criminalization of poverty as the primary source of revenue," as operators impose hefty fines on people who do not have the means to buy a ticket. In 2019, the Washington city council approved a reduction in fines and the elimination of prison sentences for those who do not pay the ticket. The decision is based on data indicating that nine out of ten court cases for non-possession of the ticket are aimed at African American people. By completely eliminating tickets, transport operators avoid the risk of a discriminatory application of the rules.

The effects on the service Making the rides free also leads to the elimination of the financial costs associated with the creation of systems for ticketing and at checks. In Boston, for example, the extension of a trial on free vehicles produced an unexpected benefit: faster boarding times. "This means faster and more reliable travel times, and an improvement in overall service," explains Mcarthur.

However, making tickets free or heavily discounted can also have the opposite effect. In Germany, overcrowding, interruptions in service and thousands of overtime hours for staff occurred in the first weekend since the introduction of monthly tickets at 9 euros. In Spain, Muñoz Nieto warns that without increasing the frequency of rides, trains will become overcrowded.

A lot of money is needed to increase services by reducing fares. In Spain, the free media will be financed with a tax on energy companies and banks that the government believes could bring in € 7 billion over two years. "Subsidizing trains is incredibly expensive, but it has to be done if you want to get a lot of people in and out of cities for work," says Paul Chatterton, professor at the University of Leeds.

Mass transit systems in all over the world are already subsidized to some extent by public funds. In France, tickets represent just 10 percent of the public transport budget. Luxembourg could easily make the trains free, because a two-hour ticket costs only two euros, and the fares collect 30 million euros in revenue on a budget of one billion euros. In the case of London, on the other hand, two-thirds of the budget of Transport for London, the authority that manages public transport in the city, comes from tickets, which means that the central government would have a greater gap to close if it wanted to make everyone free. public transport in the capital.

Transport systems that depend heavily on tickets have been severely tested during the pandemic and many networks are still struggling with the shift of commuters to hybrid work.

The option of targeted discounts An alternative to free rides for all is represented by targeted discounts, which offer free or low-cost subscriptions to students, young people, seniors and people who receive a subsidy, an already common practice in different countries. Free passes could be awarded to those with lower income, or to residents of regions where public transport is available but not very popular, instead of financing the transport costs of people who can afford it. Another compromise is to charge a reduced flat rate, as Germany did this summer: "People would still enjoy the service, but it would also generate revenue," says Chatterton.

Beyond of cost assessments and passenger statistics, there is another way to look at this: public transport should be considered a human right, just like health and education. According to Mcarthur, public transport is an essential element for life in the city: "Public transport is an extremely efficient way to move people - explains Mcarthur -. Buses and trains are not efficient only for the people who use them: they are. even for non-users ".

This article originally appeared on UK.

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