Op-ed. Successful Fare-free Public Transport never comes alone

“Those that fail to learn the lessons of history, are doomed to repeat them.” 
– Attributed to Winston Churchill (and others)

Discussions of free public transport are often presented by the media and too often even in expert discussions as if it were a new concept that has no history.  To make wise policy decisions we need to be aware of this history.

To this end, this broad historic  overview and critical expert commentary on the international evolution of Fare Free Public Transport  (FTP here) covering the last half century was prepared by Dr. Michel van Hulten (see below) and submitted as a working paper in support of the international conference organized in Tallinn under the title: “Free public transport for all. Dream or reality”   In this working paper the author looks at the issues of the ‘why, how, when, where to pay for public transport’ (FFPT) – issues and questions that need to be at the heart  of our discussions and in time our decisions and actions.  

Required reading!

What is our issue?

Our issue is that the introduction of fare-free public transport changes substantially our approach of the functioning of our society and economy, in particular our town and country planning, in a way decisive for creation of more equal opportunities for the use of space (and time!). More equal for all citizens, men and women, rich and poor, old and young, healthy and physically less able, handicapped in whatever way.

The introduction of fare-free public transport finally makes of public transport a ‘common good’, in line with all other answers to our common needs which are better handled in common as individually. Think of national safety (army), personal security (police and justice), health/medical infrastructure, education/schools, construction and use of infrastructure for physical and virtual mobility, paid for by all according to their means, available for all according to their needs, not depending on market forces.

It is also time to point out that in the discussion on ‘basic income for all’ it is often forgotten that in our modern societies we already enjoy a large part of our personal incomes as ‘basic income’, next to our private earnings which we receive in return for the implementation of productive tasks.

If by introducing fare-free public transport we equalize the access to work, housing, and public and private services for all citizens, we introduce as an underlying principle in our societies that transportation is a ‘basic need’ that has to be answered for all citizens, like is the case with housing, work, health, education, culture.

If we accept that the transportation needs of all citizens have to be answered, public transportation has to be offered ‘fare-free’ to all. The consequence is that those who need most a public transport that is fare-free, pay least. Those who can financially afford to own and use their private vehicles, pay most, also if they do not make use of public transport. Also they pay for availability.

To pay cash and individually is old-fashioned

The thinking and studying about fare-free public transport has been stimulated recently by the development of modern technology, in particular by inventions in the field of electronics and in the virtual world as these open new opportunities to identify users other than through the possession of a valid ticket.

  • Anyhow, to pay cash to the driver on the bus or tram at the moment you enter is very old-fashioned.
  •  It is a security-risk. The driver may be robbed from his proceeds.
  •  It is an administrative burden as someone has to count all those coins and tickets, keep day-accounts, is responsible for delivery and accuracy, is accountable to his superiors, and ultimately serves in the first place the owners and policymakers that are responsible for this service to the public and has less time to serve the passengers.
  •  It is time-consuming. ‘Pay-as-you-go’ costs time. And time costs travel-money which is not spent on transportation costs. Think of the old person in front of you entering the bus who cannot find the small coins or the card to be shown.

The security-risk, the administrative burden, and the loss of time may all be cured in our modern times by introducing to pay by bankcard or other electronic device such as the use of a touch screen, or walk by a counter which registers that you were there. This is quick, no security at risk, neither further registration and administration. And the passengers will be better served.

This modernization of collecting fares from travelers is recently widely accepted. With some other technical changes (as ease of entering and leaving the vehicles, electronic time-tables, improved stops and their shelters) it helps to attract passengers, to reduce costs, and to strengthen the political motivation by the public to sustain public transport systems, a motivation needed if we want the authorities, read the public purse, to pay.

In many places citizens pay for travel-cards allowing them to make use of vehicles of the public transport system without visibility of paying a fare. The ‘where’ and the ‘when’ of individual payment has been shifted from the beginning of the ride to a bankcard-activity that can be handled in a variety of places and at various times. It looks like the ride is ‘fare-free’, which it is not.


The ‘how’ of an introduction of fare-free public transport is easy to answer in making use of these modern technologies. The ‘why’ motivation is a different issue.

It is widely accepted that we cannot do without a public transport system.

A need is felt as some in our societies fail the financial means to pay for private transport to cover travel which surpasses walking distances. Among these are most young people.

The most important group in this respect are the women from one-car-families where often in the morning the car leaves the premises with the main-income-earner leaving the rest of the household without means of motorized transport, basically isolating them from many opportunities in society and economy between 08:00 AM and 18:00 PM. I will return to this point a bit later in his paper.

Elimination of public transport would mean for those citizens isolation from work, leisure, and public and private services, the more so as these get more and more concentrated which on average means that they get more distant.

We cannot do without public transport

Other reasons why we cannot eliminate public transport from our traffic-systems are that this would increase our environmental problems, increase the number of road accidents and victims, and would increase the costs made for additional road infrastructure and of parking lots.

Imagine for instance what would happen on the streets of the Netherlands if the 1.2 million railway-passengers a day would shift from rail to road and add their private cars to the already heavily loaded highways, city-streets and parking areas. It would also mean that on average transportation costs go up for everybody, which leaves less to spend for answers to other needs. As this ultimately means that more will be spent on transportation costs like physical industrial products (cars, lubricants), less is left to satisfy other needs.

Accepting that we cannot do without a public transport system available for all, the question has to be asked: why do we pay individually and per ride for entering public transport vehicles like tram and bus?

Let us consider this question and its answer in line with other needs citizens feel like the availability of parks and public playgrounds, sidewalks of the streets, posing of street-names, direction-indicators (road-signs), street-lighting, traffic-lights, the fire-brigade, primary schools, play- and sports-compounds, local health centers, the police and the army, etcetera.

Do we pay individually for entering the city-park? Make use of the traffic-lights and street-lighting, primary school education, etcetera? Why do we happily pay for collective needs of security (the army), and safety in our living and working spaces (the police and justice)? I assume that we all pay happily for the fire-brigade knowing that these units are available when needed.

All these are collective needs for which we pay via taxation which additionally in our well-developed societies is progressive which in turn means that the higher incomes pay more and the lower pay less, as income-tax is based on individually available means. Saving on transportation costs could mean for the poor that they keep financial means available to pay for other needs.

Should not we include public transport in this list?

Pay collectively for availability (as we already do everywhere in all high-rise buildings)

For a fare-free public transport system you pay collectively because it is available to you, not because you use it.

A splendid and already everywhere accepted example is the provision with elevators and escalators which are ‘free’ to be used by all without paying a financial contribution per ride to their investments costs neither to the exploitation costs in all high-rise residential buildings and all shopping-malls with multiple floors for shopping, food-markets and entertainment. (And indeed: an exception is to climb the Eiffel-tower for ‘free’ using the steps is replaced by paying for staying in the elevator-box up to the top. My suggestion is not to lower the level of our discussion to this point).

The costs of means of vertical transportation in our built environment are covered by collective payments included in the service-fees of those buildings. Mostly also there is no differentiation in the size of the demand you place on the facilities. An apartment on the first floor does not pay less for the investments- and functioning costs of the elevator as the same apartment on the 35th floor. The fees are similar and equal whether you make much use or hardly any use.


In modern society successful and happy life depends on accessibility, less on mobility.

Over recent years our mobility has increased manifold. Through motorized mobility – in particular through the use of cars – we have expanded the number of kilometers which we cover per day. Today gaining travel-kilometers per day is not our main problem. The main problem increasingly becomes whether we can gain access to places where we want to be. It is no longer mobility which is the top-problem. The real problem is accessibility.

Look around in your own rural or urban environment. See all economically desirable concentration efforts resulting in diminishing numbers of shops to buy products or to be serviced, and the diminishing number of places where you can find these.
Per square kilometer there are less local, municipal, regional counters, less schools, hospitals, police stations, bank counters, handymen, less ambulances around the corner, less barber shops and less libraries and bookstores, pubs, café’s.

Nevertheless, on average per citizen, we use more and more urbanized space. More and more citizens in our societies can more and more spend on space for home (we want more and bigger homes, rooms and kitchens, and nice spacious bathrooms, a garden and a parking lot). Same for work-space, leisure-facilities, services answering our needs. On average this means that we consume per person more and more square meters which in turn means that all distances grow.

In the Netherlands we grew in fifty years from 100 to 400 square meters per person of urbanized land-use. On average this translates in a growth of distance from person to person from 10 to 20 meters. Our motorization of mobility came just in time to assure that we could cover all the needed additional daily travel-kilometers in order to reach each other and the places where we have to go to satisfy our needs.

On the other hand, this growing number of cars and car-kilometers causes more and more traffic obstructions, diminishing accessibility. And likely more important, all those cars that bring us where we want to be, need space to park once we arrived at destination. This adds again to distances to cover after the car is left. Leaving your car in front of your home along the road-side is more and more an impossible desire. Find a parking space and walk to your destination! Most authorities profit from reserved parking-lots which does not familiarize them with this problem until they retire.

And remember, on average a car is used less than one hour a day. The other 23 hours a day, your car, does not add to your mobility but stands near your home, workplace, shop, sports-facility, church, assembly-hall, restaurant, etcetera. Experience shows that per car three parking-lots have to be available in order to satisfy demand. This imposes a huge burden on our environment in terms of land use. In financial terms this means e.g. in the Netherlands that we subsidize the use of cars with hundreds of euros per year for the free use of most publicly available parking lots. If we would halve this subsidy (e.g. by putting a price on curb-parking everywhere), this would generate so much more income for the public purse that we could already pay all functional costs of all public transport.

No ‘free’ lunch
Those opposing fare-free public transport (FFPT) often use as argument that ‘free lunches’ do not exist. Someone has to pay.
Yes, indeed, proponents of FFPT could not agree more. The real discussion is not about ‘fare-free’, but about who should pay and at what moment of time making fare-free possible: when making use or making it available?

My thesis (and of many of my colleagues working in this field of urban and regional economy) is that providing the community with FFPT is a wise, financially and economically justifiable decision, which has to be taken by responsible politicians who care for all of their citizens and for the future of our livelihoods. For the three “P’s” as they are often used: Profit, People, Planet. And as far as I am concerned: you may add a 4th one, which is Pleasure.

Yes, you came here to learn about a new world.

A world that will offer equal chances to everybody, a world that will be healthier, safer, richer, more secure, more economical in handling our resources, less car-dominant, more environment-protective, future-oriented, and less dependable on outside delivery of gasoline and diesel fuels and therefore less dependable on failed states.

Maybe, this will also be a world with less haste and more concern for each other. Will it be a more ideal world?

We note that all the motives given in that documentary as used to introduce FFPT locally or regionally, all of them are based on one or more of the qualities just given.

The problem is that too often discussions in decision-making bodies concentrate on the loss of income for City-Hall if ticket sales are abolished.

Yes, indeed, income from tickets individually sold to aspiring passengers will disappear. And it is more difficult to see the value of the qualities shortlisted as equality, health, environment, and safety, as these are not expressed in monetary terms as profits. These profits we do not find them on the credit-side of our balance-sheet, whereas the costs on the debit-side are clearly visible. In our world – which is so much based on thinking in economic terminology – this means that they have no value.

A good description of this problem I got handed by the alderman of the City of Gent in Flanders/Belgium. A few years ago, she told me about the problem with her proposal to make the local bus-nightlines on Thursday through Sunday-night fare-free. This had to be paid from the budget of the urban Transport-department.

The intended profits in Gent?

Less car/traffic accidents, less injured people, less mortal victims. Her problem is that she could not prove the profits. It is by definition difficult to prove an accident that did not happen! That only one adolescent per year, prevented from killing himself in a traffic-accident at night coming from the pub and going home, would already justify all the costs of FFPT to the budget, was not enough.

Moreover, such a profit cannot be booked in her Transport-budget, neither in any other municipal budget. As nothing happened (an accident prevented does not count), it also does not appear as profit in the Health budget of that city. In a PhD-thesis defended at the Free University of Amsterdam recently, was calculated that per victim a ‘killing in traffic’ costs on average 3 million euro, not counting emotional losses. Far less costs than the rather small budget needs for fare-free running of the nightline buses.

It is rather easy to put the health/safety argument in the first place on top of the list as profit from FFPT.
Another major profit is more difficult to understand as all those who do not dispose of a car for their transportation needs, win accessibility in their own daily environment. In particular in our modern societies where we concentrate all kind of services on fewer places and by doing so force the citizens to come to less but better equipped central points, not mobility is our major problem but accessibility.

The main question for everybody is: can I reach all answers to my needs? For those without a car waiting for them at the roadside in front of their house, this is becoming more and more a problem. This problem becomes bigger, the less there is a public transport-stop nearby. Please do not underestimate the number of our co-citizens that get more and more isolated, the more we dispense of our public transport.

Also the ‘greying’ of our societies will play a heftier role in this respect in the near future.

In the modern, western, strongly urbanized societies of our rich countries the car-markets seem to be satisfied when they reach an ownership density of one car per every two citizens.

Look for instance at the 8 million cars in the Netherlands, a country which has a human population of 17.2 million. In addition, the Netherlands has yet another two million cars for distribution and transportation of goods. However, let us concentrate on the cars serving directly the personal transportation needs of the population.
These 8 million cars are not evenly distributed over the total population. In rough statistical figures, 20 percent of the households have not a single car, and also 20 percent have two or more cars per household, 60 percent of the households have one car.

One car

Generally speaking, that one car leaves the premises where the household lives in the morning hours with the earner of the main family-income (mostly the male partner) of that household. Assuming that this is only true for half of those households, this makes that about half of the population (the 20% without car + the 30% staying home while the car is gone with the partner) depends for answering their needs outside the household-premises, and most of the daytime, on walking, bicycling and public transport.

FFPT as ‘equalizer

Yet another aspect is interesting as making use of bus and tram is most present in households at the lower end of the income-pyramid. Money saved by them on public transport that has become fare-free is easily spent on other daily needs, which – combined with the quarters where ones live – is most often in the direct neighborhood of their homes which helps to keep shops open and schools populated, which in turn improves again the quality of life in these quarters of the city.

This brings us at the most important element in FFPT, i.e. that most people using means of public transport often, mostly are the same ones as pay the least of the local and national taxes. Parallel to this phenomenon we see that the ones who always use their own car to answer their transportation needs have the bigger incomes, can afford more expenses for their transportation-needs, and pay through local and national taxes most of the bill of FFPT. It is a fabulous equalizer in our societies! The ones who use most the public transport, pay least, the ones who use less, pay most.

In this ‘new approach of transport policy’ I like to include thoughts on more future-oriented policies: environmental concerns about our car-dominated society, and on thoughts about global aspects including the power of the major corporations now dealing with oil to satisfy our energy-needs, with asphalt/concrete to build our roads, and with the vehicle-industry to satisfy our mobility-needs, which are all three not in favor of switching from private to public answers in our transportation policies. Should we remain their dependents? For those industries accessibility is not the major issue. For them mobility is the key-word. If fare-free public transport is introduced, we see everywhere that car-use is replaced by more walking, cycling and making use of public transport. This is not in the narrow business-interests of these global conglomerates. It is in our interest. Let us go for that.

# # #

Lessons to be learned: Let’s keep an eye on FPT in Estonia

# # #

About the author 

Michael Henricus Maria (Michel) van Hulten (Batavia, Dutch East Indies, March 9, 1930) is a retired Dutch researcher and politician. As a founding member of the Political Party of Radicals (PPR – roughly identifiable as left-wing christian democrats) he became a Senator in 1971, moved to he House of Representatives in 1972 and was appointed undersecretary at the Department of Transport in Joop den Uyl’s cabinet (1973-1977).  Van Hulten trained as a human geographer and urban planner in Amsterdam and Warsaw. He left politics by the end of 1977 and began to work in Mali (Gao-Tombouctou region) in non-governmental rural development assistance, to continue from 1981 onwards to 1989 being employed by the United Nations (UNDP) working in the New York Headquarters and in Burkina Faso, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam. It was in Washington that Dr. van Hulten became a researcher specializing on corruption and integrity in the World Bank’s Global Coalition for Africa (1991-1996).
His interest in FFPT began early in the 19-sixties when he was heading the social and economic research used in the early  town and country planning in the new land won by the Dutch since 1932 in the former inland-sea ‘Zuiderzee’, of which the remains are now known as ‘IJsselmeer’. His first book (in Dutch) on FFPT was published in 1972 (‘Gratis Openbaar Vervoer’, ISBN 90 267 0379 1). Followed in 2004 by an enlarged and renewed edition, again in Dutch, ‘Gratis’ Openbaar Vervoer, ISBN 90-9018392-2. Followed by a political version in 2006, ‘Het vergeten toekomstbeeld’ (the forgotten future) ISBN 978-90-811048-1-4. He stresses that he knows that someone has to pay the costs. His intentions are merely that passengers are ‘fare-free’. He considers ‘fare-free public transport’ as belonging to the ‘commons’. All pay for ‘availability’,  users travel ‘fare-free’. As professor of governance (2007-2015) in SAXION University of Applied Sciences (Deventer/Enschede) most of his academic work was on corruption, in particular studying this phenomenon in the Netherlands and Europe ‘as the number of researchers looking at Third World corruption is already overdone’.

# # #

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.)

View complete profile


Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s