Can free public transport ever work?
Share this on

Can free public transport ever work?

CLIMATE change has rightly been in the news a lot recently.

Warnings from the world’s leading scientists are becoming more alarming and the time left to save ourselves is rapidly diminishing. With these warnings usually come suggestions for how we can act, on both an individual and national level, to make a difference and turn back the clock on climate.

We repeatedly hear the pressing need to cut down on driving – one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases (GHG).

Cities across the world have implemented different methods to curb our desire to get behind the wheel – from congestion zones in London to car-free Sunday’s in Kuala Lumpur. In many cases, public transport is heavily subsidised to make it more affordable and, in theory, more attractive.

But if this idea is true and cheaper transit really does make it more appealing to the masses, reducing traffic and GHG emissions in the process, why not go all the way and make transportation free?

SEE ALSO: Top 5 things you can personally do about climate change

Well, the European country of Luxembourg has done just that.

As of summer next year, fares on trains, trams and buses will be lifted under the plans of the recently re-elected coalition government, led by Xavier Bettel.

While it is a wildly appealing idea – one that not only helps climate but also improves the social mobility of the poor, widens people’s opportunities, and just makes life that little bit easier – we have to ask, does it actually work?

Being the first country to implement such a scheme sounds impressive – and props to Luxembourg for trying – but we have to bear in mind the population of the whole place is just 600,000 people. To put that in perspective, that’s the size of a reasonably small suburb of Tokyo. Or a sixteenth of the city of Jakarta.


Luxembourg has become the first country to provide free public transport for residents. Source: Martyn Jandula/Shutterstock

This is the main reason no other country has attempted a nationwide fare-free scheme. The sheer scale would make it nigh on impossible.

To see how it could work on a bigger scale, the closest case studies we can look at are big cities that have taken the plunge to make transport available to all.

Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But, while the move got a lot of media attention, there was not the dramatic shift the authorities had hoped for, with the percentage of trips by car falling by only three percent. And a 2014 survey found most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven.

Despite the underwhelming results, the scheme in Tallinn is still running today and is likely to survive into the future. The predominant reason for this is that it cleverly finances itself – something most other fare-free schemes fail to achieve.

SEE ALSO: Here’s why global carbon emissions will hit record highs in 2018

It is attracting more people to move into the town. They, in turn, pay more income tax to the city, which feeds into the transport budget.

But Tallinn is fairly unique in succeeding where many others have failed. It is not enough for cities to budget for the transport system and infrastructure they have at the time of implementation. If the scheme truly works and rider numbers grow, so too must the service. Covering this expense without ticket revenue is challenging.

In some cases, the success of fare-free travel for some areas of a city has, in fact, cost others their transport, as routes are cancelled to bankroll the increased spending in other areas.


Traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 2013. Source: View Apart/Shutterstock

It is almost certain technology will evolve to solve this problem, assuming climate change doesn’t end us before it gets the chance.

Autonomous vehicles will drastically reduce operating costs and go a long way in making fare-free a reality. But – as stressed by climate scientists – we don’t have time to sit and wait for technology to catch up. And what we currently have at our disposal is very difficult to make financially sustainable.

While it’s an idea we would all champion, sadly we really don’t have an example of a major city using free public transportation to dramatically reduce car usage. Instead, evidence suggests the fare-free dream creates more headaches for local authorities.

What may just work, rather than free tickets for all, is a collection of localised policies for each neighbourhood – improved cycle paths, more reliable bus services, reduced fares at certain times, accessibility to stations.

If you want to convince people to give up their beloved cars, you have to make alternates modes of transport just as convenient.