Why Free Public Transport is perhaps (not such?) a bad idea

free public transport standing bus

There are a good number of proponents around the world supporting the idea that public transport should be free. It certainly is a tempting idea. And if we here at World Streets have  our own thoughts on the subject (stay tuned),  it is always good practice to check out both sides of the issues. Just below, you will find four short statements  taken from the Wikipedia entry, setting out arguments against FPT. More to follow on this but in the meantime we are interested in hearing from our readers and colleagues around the world both with (a) their comments on these criticisms and (b) yet other critical views. (This is sure to be a bit exciting.)

* Note: See numerous, extensive comments below.

But before we dig into this, permit me as editor to make a basic point.  And that is that the concept of “free public transport” is not a “bad idea” per se.

A bad idea is, for example,  to undertake to do anything that will increase capacity for car traffic in cities,  or something really stupid like spending public money to build high-tech elevated systems in cities in the Global South (or pretty much anywhere else as far as this observer is concerned).  Those are bad ideas.

Free public transport, on the other hand, is rather an interesting idea, and one which we can all benefit from if we take the time and trouble to examine it serenely from the necessary multiple points of view.  Now on to a typical critical, negative assessment.

Arguments Against

In later issues we will look at this from more positive angles, with the intention of developing a range of views and recommendations on this important topic. Today however, we want to hear from you about the arguments against. Let’s have a look at what we have thus far (and please do take the time to review the comments just below which enrich this first draft considerably):

The fact that most public transport is not “zero-fare” is evidence that there must be arguments against this policy option. Some of these arguments include:

1. Fairness. Some people’s transport needs may not be well-served by the public transport network, and yet they (as tax-payers) are forced to contribute to the cost of the service. At least in ideal economic models, user-pays systems lead to the most efficient allocation of scarce resources. Could the cost of paying for the public transport be better spent elsewhere?

2. Financial sustainability. Any extension or improvement to the public transport service must be fully funded from the public purse: being free, it cannot recover part of its cost from increased fare box revenue. As patronage on the system increases, so does the cost of provision. This may create resistance to measures to improve public transport or promote public transport use.

3. Crowding. Fares can be used to moderate demand. If cheaper fares are available off-peak, then people with more flexibility have an incentive to travel at off-peak times. This results in more effective use of limited resources. (Demand management is also used in telecommunications and energy markets.) It could be anticipated that a free service would be particularly crowded at peak times.

4. Impact on car industry. Greater public transport means that people use fewer cars; as a result, car manufacturers and service providers (e.g. mechanics, gas stations, etc.) can go out of business.

* Source : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_public_transport

But don’t stop there

Most consulted W/S articles on FPT since 2009 (And not over yet!):

* No FTP without SCR  (Systematic Car Reductions)

* To support Tallinn FTP project, W/S readers comment on FPT

* Free Public Transport! (But hey, are we talking about the same thing?)

* What is the right price for Free Public Transport?

* Free-for-all: Organizations supporting free public transport

* All W/S coverage of “Free” “Public Transport”

# # #

Thank you for pitching in on this side of the debate. Of course we are also interested to hear from you with other comments and suggestions on this important transport policy issue.

See https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/2010/06/22/should-public-transport-be-free-stay-tuned/ for an earlier World Streets article on this topic. Also note the handful of articles looking at FPT from different angles at https://worldstreets.wordpress.com/category/free-public-transport/

* But above all continue reading the extensive comments that follow.

# # #

About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | http://bit.ly/2Ti8LsX | #fekbritton | https://twitter.com/ericbritton | and | https://www.linkedin.com/in/ericbritton/ Contact: climate@newmobility.org) | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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41 thoughts on “Why Free Public Transport is perhaps (not such?) a bad idea

  1. Eric,

    I think you are forgetting a couple of other major reasons…

    5. Free public transport creates modal shift from walking (and possibly cycling). For example, the free city centre bus in Leeds (UK) has mostly replaced trips on foot, not trips by taxi from the railway station (as intended) or even short hop trips by bus. Free public transport can thus be a loser on public health grounds (people should be walking and cycling more), and CO2 emissions (which are higher by bus than on foot)

    6. Free public transport may encourage people to travel more, since the only cost is their time. This will also increase individuals’ level of emissions, not to mention pollution from diesel buses (as they will stop more and we will need more of them)

    7. Free public transport may encourage people to use their city centres more than local suburban centres (I don’t have any evidence for this!), or large out of town hypermarkets instead of their local suburban centres or local shops.

    8. Free public transport is unfair on the “polluter pays principle”. All transport produces CO2 emissions, from breathing when you walk or cycle, to the fuel use of motorised transport. Are we allowing people to burn fuel and not pay for the damage this causes?

    9. It’s well known anecdotally (from observation, if not from studies) that people value things they pay for, and not necessarily things they get for free (see “the tragedy of the commons”). What about respect for drivers, vehicles and infrastructure?

    Before you ask, I’m all for cheaper public transport, and believe we should be subsudising it to an extent, but I don’t think making it free is the answer. I know the mayors and officials of towns like Hasselt in Belgium (where buses are free) would disagree…

    • Anzir points out that mass transit, being somewhere between human power and car culture in both carbon footprint and physical fitness, means it is a step in the wrong direction from walking or riding a bike. I’m coming from a suburban American perspective, where walkability and bikeability is a distant dream. Walking and biking are leisure activities here. They have almost no practical application under conditions of extreme sprawl. The vast majority of people who would switch to free or nominally cheap mass transit would be switching from cars.

  2. Here are my five reasons for not making transit free:

    1) Needlessness: People are willing to pay a fair price for a reasonable quality product. It makes no sense to give it away and lose all the income customers were willing to give. The people transit most needs to attract – car-users – pay a lot of money to buy and run their car. They have already shown a willingness to pay for quality, so why focus on free rather than quality?

    2) Effectiveness: Free transit means that a lot of public money goes on provision of the basic service. For a city of 1 million people, this is likely to require 300 to 500 million Euro per year just to keep what we have going. That consumes all the money that could have been spent on extra services, better quality, transit improvement schemes such as BHLS/BRT, terminal/stop upgrades, etc.

    3) Social balance: Transit would need an extra 200-300 million Euro per year in a typical city just to fill the gap for what people were paying already. This is serious money, and would fund a wide range of educational, health, social support, urban improvement and other things that would improve the daily lives of the citizens. While transit subsidies should remain, it is hard to make a case that the marginal benefits of making it free outweigh the other worthy uses of public funds for the same group of citizens.

    4) Dependency: Free transit means complete dependency on the public purse, and the political support for such a policy. Expensive programs get cut sooner or later, it is inevitable as government philosophy changes. The Horn of Plenty dries up. Reintroducing fares and a slew of service cuts to balance the books seriously undermines transit attractiveness and ridership. If making transit free attracts riders, it stands to reason that charging for it again will drive them away.

    5) Loss of business focus: Transit is a business. It works well and efficiently because people remember that it is a business. Even if the public purse is a significant customer who pays for those extra services, affordable tariffs, extra quality, etc., it is still run as a business. You work hard for your buck, and you make sure the job gets done right and gets done safely. If you forget that it is a business, the discipline goes and everything gets sloppy.

    I can also give five reasons to justify public subsidies to transit (which I believe in), but that’s not the same thing as making it free.

  3. Why not discuss free highways? Free carbon dumping? Free polluting? Free fossil-fuel subsidy? The list of freebies for autosprawl goes on forever.

    Public transport is a public investment, not a business [though privately operated in the UK]. It benefits all. Do you call school subsidized?

    The autosprawl industry, however is highly subsidized. The most powerful subsidy is the restrain-of-trade tariff on usage [fares]. The fares serve mainly to discourage use.

    The auto-system retains critical mass only through extreme subsidy including destruction of the biosphere and military force.

  4. While I am somewhat neutral on this topic, I would note that many of the arguments put forth would apply equally to sidewalks, cycle ways, public
    parks, public toilets, etc.

    And yet, I doubt most of us would advocate charging a fee for use of these (although there are cities that do charge for access to parks and toilets).

    We don’t generally advocate charging a fee for using the sidewalk because it is viewed as a public good. And hopefully we all support walking as public policy (as well as cycling and public transport).

    I am struck by the fact that in many cities with free public transport, the Armageddon suggested in some of the comments does not happen. The systems are well maintained and operated. There are still pedestrians and cyclists. And they do not become too crowded because they are sized to meet the demand, which should be a design principle regardless of the fare level.

    The free transport business model can also be sustainable. For example, Orlando (FL) has a very nice free inner city BRT service paid for by fees on private vehicles (which has a nice bit of justice to it). Miami has a truly wonderful free People Mover.

    Obviously, the examples from Florida and Belgium are not representative of what would happen in developing Asia. But I am not sure that free public transport is out of the question for these contexts.

    And hopefully, we can continue to use sidewalks, cycle ways, parks, and toilets before the economists demand a strict application of user/polluter



  5. Like Lloyd I’m also somewhat neutral on this subject. I’ve heard that in some cases the fare-collection equipment and staff cancels out the fare income — in which case I’d be in favour of free public transport. Just because people are willing to pay a fair price doesn’t mean that fare collection infrastructure is a good use of that money.

    I’d also point out that most of the arguments would apply equally as arguments against monthly passes. In Prague you pay about 15 EUR a month (basically free as far as I’m concerned) for your pass, and you can use buses, trams, metros and trains as you please. The system is highly subsidised of course — even with the fares. When living in Prague I didn’t get the impression that I or others used public transport more (and walked or cycled less) just to get more value from the system. A monthly pass doesn’t regulate crowding either, unless you restrict the times of day that it can be used (like the UK’s Student Rail Card).

    Ivan Illich argued back in the 1970s that free public transport would increase the dominance of transport over our lives, but the Prague example convincingly counters that argument, in my view anyway.

    I’m not sure that public transport should be a business any more than public libraries and schools are businesses.
    The fairness argument has little validity in cases where public transport is subsidised, and where public transport accommodates people with disabilities.

    I didn’t understand the fourth argument about impact on car industry. Fewer people in cars can only be a good thing. The car industry is in a phase of down-sizing, which I’d like to see continue as we shift to a focus on greener industries.

  6. I disagree with Lloyd on the analogy. Public transport systems have very high running costs/variable costs. While it is not free to maintain cycleways or sidewalks, costs are small. And many of us DO advocate charging for using roads!

    Lee Schipper, Ph.D
    Project Scientist
    Global Metropolitan Studies

      • And all citizens benefit from subsidizing public schools. Better public schools generally bring higher property values, and the existence of public schools means that lower class youth will have a better chance of making more meaningful contributions to the community.

  7. Maybe the problem is the either/or of free or full costs, and not thinking of options between the two and progress towards the second. I propose the following:

    – Charge road users as close as possible to the real costs of their car/motorcycle use and earmark it for public transport

    – Do your best to reduce as much as possible the price of public transport operation (or increase frequencies etc) by use of the funds collected via polluter pays in cars etc.

    Maybe at some point it will be possible to have zero cost for public transport use?

    Best regards,

    Carlosfelipe Pardo

  8. I think it is hard to say that free public transport is good or bad idea.

    In the Slovenian town Velenje, for example, there is free public transportation and still most of the people use their cars. Even those who live only 500 meters from their jobs, would rather take their cars and park them in front of the companies. If the city want to implement free public transport, than restriction on car use is necessary.

    People would use mass public transportation only if quality would improve and if they will be forced not to use their cars everywhere. The prices are important, but with secondary focus.

    We have to think how to turn car drivers into bus users, and not how to turn pedestrians or cyclists into bus users.

    best Josip

  9. Implementing fare-free use of collective or individual public transport is quite context-specific. There are many current metro systems in the U.S, Europe etc. which could not handle the extra burden without massive investment and/or shift to home working, bicycles and so on…. but then again many public bicycle systems are nearly fare-free as a way to promote cycling, so why not the same for public transport systems which are new or have the capacity?

    The 30min fare-free model for public bikes can be inspiration for further fare-free travel using collective means, but of course only in dense urban areas. (I am not advocating for fare income to made up by advertising deals).

    Bottom line, public transport provision is a major part of any developed or developing economy, and it seems unfair or silly to look for some/too much fare income there whilst huge amounts of money are spent on areas outside the mobility or urban livability sectors, such as on military arms. Can we please make sure that the question to ask here is not “Buses or bikepaths?” but “Buses or bombs?”

    • “Can we please make sure that the question to ask here is not “Buses or bikepaths?” but “Buses or bombs?””

      In principle this is what we should be calling for, but in practice my experience is that even when transport spending is bringing about genuine and measurable social benefits, this does not bring about more budget for transport from other departments.

  10. Public Transport operators do (or certainly should) constantly monitor demand, which is easiest done from the farebox, so that adjustments may be made to service frequency, hours of operation and introduction of new routes where transfer demand becomes significant. Free travel removes these data sources and would require replacement by costly surveys of Origin – Destination, journey purpose, required arrival, departure or dwell times and the like.

    In places where it is cold, people will ride public transport just to keep warm (I remember this happening in Norwich, England in the 1970s where the 5p City Circle which took an hour to go round attracted significant numbers of the elderly (and vagrants) in winter to warm up for an hour.

    In places where it is hot, and transit has air-conditioning, the same sort of thing will happen.

    Far from attracting prople out of cars and damaging the car and fuel supply industries, it seems to me that it would have the reverse effects, as the overcrowding and less salbrious members of society would soon discourage those with an alternative available from using public transport at all. I recall that 40% of the Tyne & Wear Metro’s passengers actually had a car available for the journey they were making on the system – most of these would revert to the car rather than be squashed in with the unwashed!

    In the UK people over 60 (soon to be raised to 65) currently have free travel on all bus services in their specific Country; England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Has any research been carried out into their change of behaviour? If so this might indicate what might happen with the rest of the population.

    In the Transport for London area everyone under 18 has free travel on buses – again what change has occurred since this was introduced?

    Certainly with the efforts the coalition Government is making to reduce public expenditure and to balance the Nation’s books, there is absolutely no way in which the loss of revenue could be funded, let alone the huge potential cost increases. There are no longer savings to be made (buses don’t have conductors any more so they can’t be got rid of) and Government already supports public transport with subsidies to the tune of about £10 billion annually if my memory serves me.

    Fare free public transport is dead in the water so far as I can see.

    Peter Lutman FCILT

  11. I think even those who do not use public transport should pay for it, because public transportation is an essential service to keep the whole town working – and all people need the entire urban system.

    André Soares

  12. I agree with the sentiment expressed here by some that it depends heavily on the local context and the objective for which “free” public transport (that is, someone other than the user pays all the costs) is being proposed. But for most of the usual-suspect-objectives that people have already cited — support a public good, bolster public transport’s mode share, or reduce private car use — removing from the user all burden of cost-sharing will generally prove to be ineffective.

    In time-sensitive environments (e.g. developed-country cities), free public transport will generally slow the system down (artificial “congestion” from higher frequency of stops, more people boarding at stops) which would further incentivize private vehicle use. (Lloyd mentions a couple of exceptions, but these seem to be highly niched circumstances, with minuscule mode share, I would imagine.) In developing country cities, the very immediate logistical problem is that “public” transport is provided by thousands of small operators — there is no way to contemplate creating a “free’ system under these circumstances without generating a myriad of other problems that would be too horrible to think about. So the larger question is how to transform these systems into more manageable, sustainable, and organized public tranpsort delivery systems, which is what we are all grappling with.

    In short, “user-doensn’t-pay” systems may be ok in a limited number of circumstances to meet specific objectives, but it should not be an abstract goal we should be striving for.

  13. There are times when implementing fare-collection would make the system costlier than not implementing fare-collection. Collecting fares needs investment in fare-collection machines, but it also makes entry and exit time-consuming (as only the front door of the bus can be used). In places where the buses make short trips with a lot of people getting in and out at each stop, sometimes fare-collection is simply not worth it.

    A good example is my Rutgers university bus system, which does not collect fares (of course the money comes from the fee we pay). For the 5-10 mile trips it makes, fare collection would significantly impact the time taken to complete one trip.

    But I also remember my IIT madras bus system, which had a 1 Rupee fare. To collect the fare, they had to keep a conductor – who could have otherwise been more gainfully employed as a driver. Service frequencies were terribly low, so they could have used more drivers to up the frequency. And it is unlikely that the fares collected even covered the costs of employing a conductor.

    As for an increase in demand, that can be managed by restricting supply. The buses at Rutgers rarely run with a headway of more than 10 minutes, so students are unlikely to use the bus short walkable trips of a mile or less.

    I cannot speak with any certainty about other situations where this would work, but for short trips with a lot of ridership, I think fare-free systems do make sense, even from a strictly economic viewpoint.


  14. I am by no means convinced that it should be an important goal, but I would like to reply to the arguments that have been given against it.

    Creates modal shift from walking/cycling: Yes, though it can also create opportunities for people to make leisure walks and return by public transport. However I am concerned at the appropriateness of making public transport users (who do at least have to walk between their home/destination and bus stop or station) walk further while most motorists expect to park within or just outside their homes and at destinations such as supermarkets.

    Encourages people to travel more: Yes, but mainly through filling seats that would otherwise go empty and which therefore do not significantly increase emissions.

    May discourage people from using their local shops: Yes, but if the local shops offer poorer value for money is it right that sustainable travellers should be forced to use them ?

    Unfair on polluter pays principle: As stated above in most cases it involves use of otherwise empty seats so in a sense it should be free.

    People value things they pay for: In many cases this just means that those who don’t value the service cease to use it. If this means leaving seats empty while they congest the city with their cars it’s not an advance.

    Needlessness: The fact is that in many places public transport is failing and radical initiatives are needed to keep it going.

    Effectiveness: The same money has to be paid whether it’s by farepayers or taxpayers. In fact because of the cost of collection (e.g. delays to buses — even with London’s Oystercard they don’t board travellers instantaneously) the cost will be greater if paid by way of fares.a

    Social balance: Ditto.

    Dependency: The effect of making transport free is that decisions have to be made politically rather than commercially. If the political process is democratic this strikes me as a good thing. I think most UK citizens prefer decisions on health spending to be made this way, isn’t that similar ?

    Loss of business focus: In the UK most public transport is run either purely commercially or mainly commercially but with public support. I for one don’t regard the result as a good advertisement for this method.

    Fairness: In many cases if public transport doesn’t fit a person’s needs that is because of a conscious decision made by that person, e.g. to live where the journey to work needs a car. In other cases (e.g. those who are severely disabled) it would be better to compensate the relevant people in other ways. Our health and education systems run on the basis that those who don’t use the public system still have to pay for it. There are some who feel that even this isn’t adequate; if influential people were forced to use the same schools as everyone else they would ensure that they were adequately resourced. How much stronger this argument would be if applied to transport.

    Crowding: This is a legitimate argument and one answer may be that free travel should be restricted to off peak services. (This already happens to some extent in the UK, e.g. free concessionary bus passes in many parts of the country are not valid in the morning peak.) But there is a counter-argument about “fairness”. There are many places from which people making a day trip to (say) London have to return in the evening peak (which can cost perhaps 3 times as much) because after the peak their buses home from the station have either stopped completely or drastically reduced in frequency. How can it be fair to charge public transport users 3 times as much as motorists ?

    Simon Norton

    by public transport

    Impact on car industry: How can it be a good thing to maintain employment in an industry that is destroying our environment ?

  15. There are cases where free public transport is a good idea and cases where it is a waste of money. Almost all the arguments are listed above so I’ll just post some anecdotes…

    On many levels free public transport for pensioners in the UK has been a huge success. Ridership is high, and senior citizens generally love their ‘freedom pass’, this ticket is correctly named for it allows older people who may not be able to afford to travel that often the freedom to go where they want, when they want.

    In my opinion this ticket is a correct use of public subsidies, as it targets a largely low income group and therefore serves the public good in more ways than in just purely transport terms. In that we are closing local post offices and other places for old people to socialise, this pass will probably help provide considerable social welfare benefits. I wonder if visits to the doctors or social service costs for the elderly may have been reduced since the introduction of the pass.

    However even for this type of well targeted intervention cost is an issue; in many cases concessionary fares is one of the highest budget items for increasingly stretched public transport departments. We may reach the point where there is little money for anything else.

    Where free public transport is a waste of money is when it is used as a carrot to drive patronage and modal shift away from cars or motor-bikes. I’ve been informed by some travel planners that car drivers tell them they wouldn’t use public transport even if they were paid to do so.

    In Taichung City in Taiwan where I once lived, a city of over 2 million people with practically no public transport, free buses was tried on two occasions when they introduced a city bus system.

    With no priority lanes the buses were slow, and by their very nature did not run door to door, and since motor scooter parking and pretty much car parking was unregulated, (sidewalks were for scooter parking certainly not for walking), even when free only a handful of people used the bus.

    Interestingly also in Taichung, when the high speed rail station was built 5 miles from the city centre the free shuttle buses have been extremely well used, as there is almost no free parking near the new station.

    So in conclusion there are occasions when free public transport would be a justified use of money, such as for the old or young, or on feeder lines to MRT or HST stations, but in many cases spending on bus priority would be a better use of limited funds.

  16. Thanks for raising this issue, Eric. I agree with several who’ve already commented: local context is important.

    For a time I was a frequent user of a free bus system in the resort town of Ketchum, Idaho, and believe the town’s traffic conditions and air quality would have suffered without the system. The fare-free feature definitely encouraged its use. In this situation, where road space was limited and the valley subject to air inversions, local agencies had decided it was well worth supporting a free bus. The service was used both by tourists and locals, including several disabled residents.

    I would argue that free public transport should be at least considered as an option much more frequently than is currently done. And I agree that both positives and negatives of this approach should be carefully examined.

    As for #4 on the list of arguments against free public transport, well — the fact that came from Wikipedia says something …. but you might also argue that if car manufacturers and service industries converted to building transit equipment and providing transit-oriented services, then free transit would be GOOD for business. The sort of saving-jobs argument represented by #4 is always specious. For instance — most civil societies don’t encourage heroin consumption in order to keep poppy farmers employed.

  17. Making public transport free would allow more people to roam even further afield to commit crimes. This is what happened when cars came into use.

    Making public transport free is just a way of increasing the relative cost of driving, but does it very indirectly, thus very ineffectually. The more appropriate policy response would be to have drivers pay for the full cost of driving — probably somewhere on the order of $100,000 per gallon of gas.

    As for the skepticism of free (ie taxpayer-supported) systems that are successful — there are myriad — national defense and healthcare systems in most modern industrialized societies, to name just a few hundred of the largest examples. California used to have a free university system that used to be the envy of the world. The public library system in the US is an astounding achievement. The public parks system is largely free. The list goes on and on.

  18. Focusing on the impact of free public transport on public transport use is missing the point, as unpopular politically to swallow as it is.

    Measures to rein in car use, principally by raising its cost have a disproportionate impact on encouraging greater transit use than lowering the costs of public transport. That’s because using a car/motorcycle (the case in nearly all countries/cities of the world) is more convenient than using transit.

    In case the table figures from Mayer Hillman below seems ‘Londoncentric’, Professor Mohan at IIT-Delhi has found that up to distances of 12km (most urban journeys) the car is faster than both Metro and BRT. Given that time is now almost out to reduce transport’s contribution to climate change perhaps our emphasis should shift accordingly?

    “It can be seen from the table below that car drivers’ travel time is far lower than bus or rail, from which it can again be observed that it is wholly unrealistic to anticipate a future in which public transport could compete in door-to-door speed with the car on journeys up to 10 miles, accounting for 86 per cent of all journeys. Moreover, when attention is turned to the influence of the costs of travel, it is apparent that, unless the real and perceived costs of car travel, for instance in relation to speed, parking and fuel prices, are dramatically increased, holding down fares is likely to have only a minor effect on this particular modal choice: a modeling exercise has revealed that halving public transport fares would only reduce car traffic by two per cent (Dasgupta et al., 1994), and if public transport were free, car use would be reduced by no more than 6 per cent (Norris, 1995).”

    Mayer Hillman (Senior Fellow Emeritus, Policy Studies Institute) in Chapter 8 in The Greening of Urban Transport (ed. Rodney Tolley), John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

    Table 4 Mean overall journey time, in minutes, by travel method and length of journey, Great Britain

    Distance band in miles




    London stage bus

    Other stage bus

    British Rail

    Car driver

    Source: special tabulation from National Travel Survey 1991/93

  19. Dear Eric,

    In my view, the important argument against FTP is the non-inclusion of environmental costs. Public transport, albeit to a lesser extent than private MT, burdens non-renewable natural resources and requires carbon sink capacity. Policy makers consider FTP as an option in competition with private MT in the price of which environmental costs aren’t included either.

    We should strive at mobility pricing systems with proper inclusion of environmental costs in each option. In other words: Fuel should become far more expensive rather than making PT even cheaper.

    Best regards,


    Senior policy officer
    I-CE, Interface for Cycling Expertise
    Trans 3, 3512 JJ Utrecht, The Netherlands
    Tel: +31 30 2304521, Fax: +31 30 2312384
    Email: i-ce@cycling.nl, Web: http://www.cycling.nl
    NGO registration KvK41265203

  20. Maintaining the system critical mass of the auto-system is costing the biosphere and the subsidies are enough to bail out every government on earth. So even if you don’t care about the future of life on earth, you can be against subsidizing waste. When there is enough free transit to break the critical mass, the subsidy will be exposed and rejected by all.

  21. Dear discussants:

    No wonder I keep reading this listserve. There is a lot of informed opinion out there.

    I want to add two perspectives that haven’t been covered so far:

    1) There are lots of places in the US where the farebox only covers 10 to 20 percent of the operating cost and the effort to collect fares even adds a few percent to operating cost. At the same time, there is not really a peak demand problem causing overloading. (This would be a good problem these operators would like to develop.) In this case, I think having zero fare is OK. It makes little difference to the subsidy required, it helps generate ridership and familiarity with public transport, it subsidizes those at the bottom of the income scale, and it helps the 32 percent of the population that don’t have driver’s licenses. In the US this about 100 million people.

    2) It isn’t always true that driving is faster for trips under 12km.
    Especially when one must hunt for parking. I could drive to Center City Philadelphia from my house, but I might have to circle for 10 minutes just to find parking. And if I want to save time, the odds are that I would pay $6 for one hour if I gave up hunting for on-street parking. The streetcar takes me there in a few minutes longer but I have no worries once I get there. The trick is to make this true in ever-larger parts of the city. Due to total stagnation in PT development for decades, the size of this area hasn’t been expanding in my city, or in most US cities. But in European cities where the median income is far higher than in Philadelphia like Munich, Helsinki or Stockholm that have seen ever-expanding systems and systems where service is reliable and frequent, there is a large part of the city where PT outperforms the car. Hence ridership per capita of PT exceeds 400 per year.

    Eric Bruun

  22. Free public transport can be an equity issue more than a getting-cars-off-roads issue. In the South African metros, for eg, where it is enormously difficult to overcome apartheid spatial planning, poorer people live a long way from where they work (sometimes 120km round trips a day!) and spend up to 40% of their incomes on transport. Although public transport is heavily subsidised, there are calls by, among others, the largest trade union coaltion (COSATU) for public transport – where it specifically functions to overcome the spatial divide – to be free. Or at least have free days, where job-seekers or pensioners can travel, and free travel for school learners (who again often drop out of school because of the high proportion of transport costs)…

  23. Hi Eric: I send to you text published at the diary Tribuna do Norte about the reclamations caused for free-pass bus in RN-Brasil.
    cans you see more at: http://tribunadonorte.com.br/noticia/passe-livre-gera-criticas-de-usuarios/154316
    Passe-livre gera críticas de usuários:
    O sistema do passe-livre implantado pela Secretaria Municipal de Mobilidade Urbana da capital do Rio Grande do Norte (Brasil) tem surtido efeito contrário em alguns pontos da cidade. Segundo relatos de usuários de transporte público, o prazo de uma hora entre as passagens nas catracas do primeiro e segundo veículos – no mesmo percurso – é insuficiente para se deslocar entre bairros da zona Norte aos da zona Sul da capital. A demora impede usufruir da gratuidade e aumenta as despesas no final do mês. No bairro Potengi, o atraso na saída dos ônibus do Terminal do Conjunto Soledade também é motivo de reclamação. No percurso, o circular gasta de 15 a 20 minutos. “A gente espera até 40 minutos para o ônibus sair”, disse a vendedora Manuela Pinheiro, que trabalha no Centro.

  24. I am torn on this issue. I agree with the point about valuing what we pay for, and there is evidence to suggest anti-social behaviour [1] has increased significantly on buses in London since teenagers were granted free travel on Oyster. I also subscribe to the ‘user pays’ and ‘polluter pays’ principles.

    I am all in favour of changing the balance between passengers and all taxpayers regarding paying for public transport, and would also like to see the Swiss GA card model used elsewhere: a single annual sunk cost, then free travel at will. Just one of the many reasons why PT has a modal share of 22% of pass km, and it is incredibly easy to live without a car in Switzerland. Does anyone know the proportion of operating costs covered by the average mileage GA card holder?

    One could argue this isn’t fair, as card holders travel a range of distances. However, low-mileage Swiss passengers can opt for the half-price card instead. Regional versions could be introduced in larger countries, together with peak and off-peak variants. The latter would add complexity, and arguably should not be applied unless private car users also pay variable road access charges by time of day and/or congestion level. I should add that there is now a debate in Switzerland about the growing problem of accommodating commuters into Zurich and Basel: tiered pricing according to demand would appear to be the way forward even for the Swiss. It is not economically sustainable to over-subsidise long-distance commuters, who of course have among the greatest theoretical willingness to pay, even if it is environmentally sound on a 95% hydro-electric powered railway.

    I find the idea of public transport passes offering a limited number of ‘free’ km / trips, perhaps within a city region, then charging on a pay-as-you-go basis, very attractive in principle, but would it be practical?

    A number of papers have found that service quality elasticities are generally greater than those of fares, although it is not clear that this applies in both directions, especially with regard to reducing the cost to zero.

    Finally, I wonder whether it will be necessary to introduce free PT once car users – sooner or later – pay their external costs and are faced with massive demand-induced pump price increases. We heard it said a number of times at the TCC conference that “internalise external costs and the rest will follow”. I tend to agree.

    In summary I would rather see private motoring costs increase significantly – justified largely as a carbon reduction measure, in which case fuel is the obvious target – than free PT. A range of sunk-cost mobility passes would provide the alternative or ‘carrot’: there is a debate to be had about simplicity vs demand management and avoiding PT-fuelled hypermobility, and the proportion of costs borne by the passenger vs the general population. Having said that, I would be warmer towards free PT if visitors as well as residents were taxed to pay for it, via hotels for example: this would apply equally to domestic and international leisure travellers. I do not see why residents of popular tourist areas should bear the cost of carrying visitors.

    [1] This could be a discussion topic of its own – who can say they managed an urban public transport journey recently without encountering some sort of low-level anti-social behaviour? This is a serious deterrent, seemingly widely ignored.


  25. I have thought of one possible argument against it — that it might undermine public transport in adjacent areas where it is not free.

    This can also happen where there are large differences in the quality of public transport, and I believe it has happened around the Greater London boundary.

    Incidentally I was interested to see free public transport in cities as one of the wishes of Oliver James in his well publicised book “Affluenza”.

    Simon Norton

  26. Pingback: At Any Cost? The hidden costs of charging for public transport | World Streets / Open Edition

  27. I would say that, although there might be exceptions, free public transport is in most cases not a good idea.

    I remember when, many years ago, here in the Netherlands students, including myself, got a free public transport pass. The result was that many students who always cycled to the lectures started taking the local bus. Some used always the bus, but particularly in rainy days suddenly buses that used to be rather empty were overfull. I know of students who hadn’t fixed their flat tire for weeks because there was the free bus.
    I am not sure if they added capacity to the fleet (which would mean more costs and pollution) but even without this this led to overcrowded and less attractive bus travel for those who already used it (with the chance that they would shift to cars) and it meant missing the positive health effects of cycling for those that shifted from bike to bus and maybe continued with their inactive travel behaviour even after graduating.

    Someone already mentioned induced travel. That certainly happened with the free country-wide public transport pass. We used to travel around the country for fun and I know of students who used the train to study, just traveling back and forth while reading the study material.

    As a train user now I love it when there is a lot of space in the train. So if a free public transport policy would be used to fill up the off-peak hours to capacity the it would make PT less attractive for me and for some people it might even lead to shifting to the car.

    Motorised transport which always pollutes and comes with a price for society should, as a default, not be free of charge. Special cases might be those where it is a temporary thing to attract new users.

    I would say that if your PT system is underutilized, look at how to improve the service and for policies to make car-use more expensive and less attractive in relation to PT. And if you have tax money available to make PT free isn’t there almost always a better way to invest it? Maybe in an extra PT-line, making PT truly more competitive, or in better facilities for walking and cycling?

    Jeroen Buis
    Consultant for Interface for Cycling Expertise
    The Netherlands

  28. I arrive at this from the outside, as a free thinker. It dismays me that there are so many unstated assumptions extending over all of the contributions. There is an assumption that public transportation is synonymous with buses and trains. That public policy is the engine for change. That costs for buses is a major driver. And that cars are more or less evil. I would challenge these and have on my website at http://zerowasteinstitute.org/?page_id=1536 . One of the claims you will find there is that there is an enormous existing investment in the automobile and it is better to make use of it, if possible, than to discard it. I also can’t understand the assumption that it is merely an unfortunate side effect of bus scheduling that they cruise with empty seats. I realize that most people lament those empty seats but what is it that causes them? That is the most important question. Can we afford to have empty seats just because we need to run buses on time? I propose a system of on-full departure rather than on-time departure and I discuss it at length. Check out the website.

    • A quick note to thank you for your comment and challenges. I have posted your message to our two concerned FB sites to draw the attention of our readers to the work you are doing. I like your approach.

  29. Pingback: Why “Freeways” and “Free Parking” Are a Bad Idea | Cycling Unbound

  30. Pingback: Pros & Cons: Making Public Transportation Free - EfficientGov

  31. hi ref free bus travel i work in the public transport industry and i am sick of seeing the same horrible nasty ignorant people that use these buses day in and day out to go one stop to get a paper or coffee surely the goverment knows this cost runs into millions of pounds every year and every day x amount of people get there free pass if the goverment needs to save money all the time free travel should be revised so lets say no more than four journeys per day using there pass there after full fare peak times say 0700 to 1000 hrs full fare and 1600 to 1900 full fare should be paid this stops the idiots going one stop and it s brings money in so mr cameron and co it is time to stand up and show some bottle before this country is doomed

  32. Pingback: Delhi Metro: The pros and cons of a free pass for women, explained

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