What if…urban public transport was free for all?

Conrad Landin explores the idea of a universal free ride.

Illustration by Andy Carter

Official delegates visiting Glasgow for the UN Climate Conference in November will receive a free pass for buses, trains and the subway. But once they look around at ordinary punters, they will see that the residents of Scotland’s largest city juggle a daily cacophony of individual paper tickets and separate smart-cards.

Urban and regional transit is as much a part of everyday life as education and housing. When we can move around with ease, we don’t just benefit as individuals – we benefit as a society. It seems like it would be a win-win to make public transport free for users and pay for it out of general taxation.

At first the idea might seem unworkable, but we just need to cast our eyes to the cities, regions and, in one case, an entire small country, that have already implemented it. The Estonian capital of Tallinn has gone part of the way there. The city’s 438,000 residents pay a small fee for a pass that gives them free access to public transport, but tourists still pay full whack. In one sense this supports the city’s transport budget, but it also means there is still a need for expensive ticketing infrastructure and enforcement regimes. Wouldn’t it be simpler to eliminate ticketing altogether and instead levy a tourist tax on overnight stays?

Although public transport was already heavily subsidized in Luxembourg, from 2020 ministers decided to scrap fares and ticket checks on trains, trams and buses in a move that cost just $44 million. Transport is not only free to the grand duchy’s 600,000 residents, but also its many incoming commuting workers and tourists. ‘The objective is to stop the deepening gap between rich and poor,’ François Bausch, the Green politician in charge of the programme, said at the time.

Dunkirk has been another high-profile testbed for fare-free travel – and no, this isn’t a bad joke about World War Two’s Operation Dynamo. In 2018 the town, (population 91,000) revived its public transport system by granting free travel on five express bus lines, each running at a 10-minute frequency. It had the desired result: a survey of bus passengers showed ridership in Dunkirk spiked the next year, with passenger numbers doubling at weekends.

In 2019, Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced free bus and metro rides for women as ‘a gift to our sisters’. In 2012 a woman was brutally gang-raped and murdered on a private bus in Delhi. Politicians concluded that having more women on public transport would improve safety and so decided to address the fact that women were far less likely to be travelling on buses and trains in the first place. The fact that this scheme has been rolled out in region with a 16.9 million population is an encouraging sign that free transport isn’t only workable for small cities in the West.

There is, however, a thorny issue with free travel – the potential for bosses to use it as an opportunity to cut staffing. In Luxembourg, such concerns prompted transport unions to oppose free travel. Given that many transport workers are primarily focused on revenue collection and enforcement, and that corporations have a proven record of using smart ticketing and automatic barriers to cut costs, this argument can’t be dismissed out of hand.

Passenger advocacy groups should instead work with transport unions to make a dual demand for free urban transport, alongside legal staffing guarantees which would make public transport safer and more accessible. Rail ticket inspectors should receive full safety training, and trains should never run with just one ‘safety-critical’ worker on board – a longstanding demand of UK rail unions concerned over driver-only operation. Ticket clerks and bus workers who currently perform spot-checks should be trained to provide assistance to elderly and disabled passengers, and indeed to anyone who requires help on board.

Free travel is not a panacea for inequality, and needs to go hand in hand with measures to make our urban settlements fit for walking and cycling. But as well as the potential for reducing car usage, it could help make public transport safe, secure and accessible for all.