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

Please see   for the latesst updte to this article and series.

On 22 June 2010 we posted in these pages an invitation to an open thinking exercise welcoming comments and views on the topic of “Free Public Transport”. Two weeks later to get the ball rolling we followed up with a first article setting out some basic principles under the title “Why Free Public Transport is perhaps a bad idea”. That posting has been among the more widely read here; as of this morning having been accessed 4,503 times. Beyond that it opened up a small Tsunami of comments, reactions and clarifications, a number of which of high interest and thoughtfulness.

But here is the joker: Judging from the responses and conversations that followed it was clear that almost everybody was reading the word “Free” in that phrase as an adjective. But that is not quite what we had in mind. Rather it was part of what we wanted to have views on, but only part of it.

If we read free as an adjective, this roughly is what the implied policy question looks like:

“Is it a good (or bad) idea to let people make full and free use of  our city bus and rail systems without asking them to pay anything”.

But suppose we ask you to make a slight adjustment to the syntax in that phrase so as to read the word “free” not as an adjective but as a verb. Which, in this writer’s view anyway, is perhaps a more interesting concept for planners and policy makers.

To which you may well ask, how do you “free” “public transport”?

Excellent question. For starters it means that we need to “free” our minds when it comes to thinking about what “public transport” in the 21st century actually is. And as we do this the process brings us smack up in front of one of the most familiar and universally shared shortcomings in transport policy and practice circles today — this being to stubbornly define city transport as basically a binary system, i.e., with X numbers of people getting around in “private cars” and the rest relegated to the less regal form of “public transport”.

And what then is this “public transport” business? Well it is all but universally interpreted to mean: all those bus and urban rail systems, which have in common that they are one way or another “corporately organized and managed”, largely deficit financed by the taxpayers, often unionised, charging fixed fares to users, and all operating on the principle of fixed routes and schedules. Just like in the larger cities of the western world back in the closing years of the 19th century. Which is we are working here with a basic organizational concept more than one hundred years old.

But here we are, already well into a new and very different century, and yet as we read reports and budgets in most cities and public agencies around the world, it is clear that those in charge are brain-hardened victim to the old thinking. Our too narrow definition of what constitutes “public transport” needs to be rethought.

Time to rethink “public transport”

It may seem surprising to most readers of World Streets, but this classic and still largely dominant definition of “public transport”, does not include things like taxis (exclusive or shared), paratransit, carsharing, ridesharing, car pools, slugging, cycling, works, school or hired buses, goods delivery, and, of course, walking. And to that should we also include various forms of telemobility, telework, etc.,  in which electronics takes a lot of pressure off the physical transport infrastructure. But of course all these and more are part of the “option to cars” global public transport system that our cities and governments should be trying to understand and deal with.

So now, it is time to “free public transport “of this old and entirely disabling definition, and move on to something else, something far broader and far more in tune with the dynamics, needs, priorities and possibilities of the new century.

And once we have freed public transport in this way, we can then get back to the first reading of the phrase, “should public transport be free?” Hmm. Now things start to get really interesting.

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Thank you all for pitching in with so much energy and so many thought-provoking ideas on this informal crowdsource exercise. Of course we continue to be interested to hear from you with other comments and suggestions on this important transport policy issue.

But don’t stop there

Most consulted World Streets 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”

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Eric Britton
9, rue Gabillot, 69003 Lyon France

Bio: Francis Eric Knight Britton is an American political scientist and sustainability activist who has lived and worked in Paris since 1969. 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 and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets, his latest book, "Better choices" focuses on the subject of environment, equity, economy and efficiency in city transport and public space, and helping governments to ask the right questions . * Current information: @ericbritton * More at:

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4 thoughts on “Free Public Transport! (But hey, are we talking about the same thing?)

  1. Brilliant. Like ‘Free Willy’, the movie about a whale in captivity, let’s ‘Free Public Tranport’ from the captivity of old thinking. I like it.

    I found out recently that one barrier to this ‘freedom’ is the charter of each transit agency. They were established with a particular function, and it was not about creating an efficient and effective, equitable transportation system.

    In Auckland (where I live) the transportation agency defines the transportation system by listing all its’ components – a list that does not include the private car. I wonder the impact of adding the private car to the list, whether it would result in different management practices.

    Eric, thanks as usual for encouraging us to think differently.

  2. The real break with past thought has to begin with: There are NO private transportation means if public space (broad meaning, includes air) is used, so, public , includes the “private” car, cycling, pedestrians, which, in general do not pay direct variable costs according to usage.
    So, also, there is NO free transportation, be it public or private, remaining only the question of pricing, who pays, how and when.
    Taking it from there may open up closed lines of thought.

  3. This seems connected to some work I am doing around how we (researchers, but also the public) understand the ‘public’ in public transit. Does it refer to a means of transportation that is publicly owned? Or because it is (sorta) a public good? Or is it public because it is public space? I suspect how people understand that word public is connected to whether they feel a sense of ownership over it and how involved they demand to be in decision-making.
    So perhaps ‘freeing’ public transit is partially coming to a better understanding of what it means to be public.


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