Free Public Transport? Hmm, are you quite sure?

free public transport standing bus

Anything missing?

There are a good number of proponents around the world — politicians and activists for the most part —  supporting the idea that public transport should be free. It certainly is a tempting idea on a number of grounds. 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. to get the ball rolling, 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 :

# # #

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

Way back in 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 more than ten thousand 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”. (Or “poor man’s transport”. You know, motorized two wheelers (M2W), cycling, walking and things like that.)

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.

# # #

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 im

# # #

Some selected comments:

Anzir Boodoo, Transcience. UK

Eric, I think you are forgetting a couple of other major reasons arguing against …

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…

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.

# # #
Brendan Finn. ETTS: European Transport and Telematics Systems Ltd. Dublin Ireland.

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.

# # #

Lloyd Wright. Senior Transport Specialist Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department. ADB,. Manila

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 pays.

# # #


But don’t stop there

Most consulted W/S articles on FPT since 2009 (And it’s 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”

# # #

See for an earlier World Streets article on this topic. Also note the handful of articles looking at FPT from different angles at

# # #

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 | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

View complete profile


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s