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.
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.
But don’t stop there
Most consulted W/S articles on FPT since 2009 (And not over yet!):
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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.
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About the editor:
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Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton