Free public transport for all?

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Free public transport for all?

Conrad Landin writes about the idea of free public transport for everyone.


Illustration by Andy Carter

Official visitors to Glasgow for the UN Climate Conference in November 2021 received a free pass for buses, trains, and the underground. But residents of Scotland’s largest city have to use paper tickets and smart-cards every day.

Transport is a part of everyday life like education and housing. When we can travel easily, it is good for us and for society. It seems like a very good idea to make public transport free and to pay for it with our taxes.

At first perhaps the idea seems too difficult, but we just need to look at the cities, regions, and one small country, that already have it. The Estonian capital of Tallinn has it partly. The city’s 438,000 residents pay a small fee for a pass that gives them free public transport, but tourists still pay the full fare. This supports the city’s transport budget, but it also means there is still a need for expensive ticket and checking systems. Perhaps it is simpler to stop tickets and have a tourist tax on overnight stays.

In Luxembourg from 2020 they decided to end fares and ticket checks on trains, trams, and buses. It cost just $44 million. Transport is free to the 600,000 residents and to the many incoming commuting workers and tourists. François Bausch is the Green politician in charge of the programme. He said, ‘The idea is to stop the deepening gap between rich and poor.’

Dunkirk is another example. In 2018 the town (population 91,000) gave free travel on five express bus lines, each run every 10 minutes. A survey showed that the number of bus passengers in Dunkirk went up the next year, and passenger numbers doubled 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 gang-raped and murdered on a private bus in Delhi. Politicians decided that having more women on public transport would improve safety. This scheme in a region with a 16.9 million population shows that free transport isn’t only possible for small cities in the West.

But there is one problem – the possibility that bosses will use it as a way to cut the number of workers. In Luxembourg, transport unions were against free travel. It is true, of course, that many transport workers collect fares and check tickets, and that companies use smart ticketing and automatic barriers to cut costs.

Passenger support groups should work with transport unions to make a demand for free transport with guarantees for workers. Rail ticket inspectors should receive full safety training, and trains should never run with just one worker on board. In the UK rail unions have demanded that for a long time as they were worried about driver-only trains. Ticket clerks and bus workers check tickets and they should receive training to help elderly and disabled passengers, and people who need help on board.

Free travel is not the answer to inequality, and we need to introduce ways to make our towns and cities fit for walking and cycling. But it can help to reduce car use and make public transport safe and accessible for all.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)