Rethinking Fare-Free Public Transport: Is It Really the Best Key to Reduce Cars in Our Cities?

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Juraj Atlas

October 26, 2021

5 min read

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people on public transport

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ongestion, noise pollution, CO2 emission, more accessible transportation options, better utilisation of urban spaces; these are the classic issues public transport authorities are up against. And the pressure to find a solution is getting more urgent as cities swell in size and climate change becomes a more pressing issue. We know targeting and reducing private car use are the best ways to get a handle on these issues. But the big question remains: 
 

How do we get citizens to leave their cars at home?

It’s not just a matter of city authorities telling citizens to leave their cars at home. What we need are attractive and realistic alternatives. This can come through either positive incentivisation, or top-down policy enforcement. 

“According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), emissions from transportation now account for more than 25% of overall greenhouse emissions in the EU.” – read this Mileus article about transport’s role in sustainable development goals.

Fare Free Public Transport (FFPT) is one of the front runners schemes city authorities have to incentivise and motivate people to leave their cars at home.

 

Taking a closer look at fare free public transport and its applications.

FFPT’s application can take form in two ways, partial or full, to improve air quality, reduce congestion, or for financial relief for commuters. Its partial application can take several forms depending on the issue it is targeting.

commuters on public transportation

FFPT can be partially granted to certain social groups. For example, in the school year of 2020, Paris introduced free public transit to residents under the age 18. Or, in Prague, it’s free to all seniors over the age of 70. The COVID-19 pandemic ignited several cities to provide FFPT to healthcare workers, like in Northern Ireland, Budapest, and Adelaide

It can be temporarily free for everyone at a unique time of urgency. Prague and Seoul are a couple of cities that have done this for limited periods of time to alleviate intense smog. 

4 ways to apply fare free public transportation
Source: UITP Full Free-Fare Public Transportation Objectives and Alternatives Policy Brief

Beyond just partial application, many cities have gone ahead with full, long-term FFPT; a 2020 report published by UITP counts nearly a hundred cases word-wide, with most of them being in European cities.

In March 2020, Luxembourg, the city with the highest number of cars per capita, launched FFPT across the country. From 1997 to 2014, Hasselt in Belgium ran FFPT. In 2019, Frýdek-Místek, a small town in Czechia, launched FFPT.

Cities around the world that use partial or full FFPT | Source: Free Public Transport

Fitting a square hole in a round peg: FFPT can’t solve everything.

So yes, I do think partial FFTP is an effective tool if it is applied in a tactile way to specific challenges as we’ve seen with many innovative examples. But is providing FFPT to everyone always the best solution to tackle all urban mobility issues in one sweep? 

This I am not so sure about.

Fixing a problem, particularly one as dynamic as urban mobility, can’t be solved with only one remedy. The idealistic notion that full FFPT is a long term solution is a problematic one that brings a laundry list of complications. 

1. FFPT doesn’t target effectively.

Sure, FFPT is useful for enabling price-sensitive or cash-strapped residents. But, they are not the commuters who we’re trying to get out of their cars and into public or shared transportation. 

FFPT is expensive, and so is public transit upkeep.

Across central and western Europe, public transit is subsidised by roughly 60% on average. So commuters are paying 40%, although usually seniors, children, and students pay a discounted rate.

If you raise the subsidy to 100%, public transit costs would increase tremendously, not because of the missed farebox revenue, but mainly for the additional infrastructure and maintenance costs. There are several competing issues to use limited pool tax money in cities. 

If public transit subsidy budgets can’t cope with this, the existing quality and efficiency of public transit will decrease significantly.  

 

2. Users won’t value public transit as much if they pay nothing for it.

In general, people generally don’t value things they get for free, particularly in the long term. Users would get used to FFPT the same way as you are used to paying 150 EUR for an annual seasonal public transit ticket.

A passenger paying 150 EUR for an annual public transit ticket would obtain 150 EUR in credits to claim for using other shared transportation services that make their journeys more comfortable, yet their environmental impact sustainable (i.e. without using private cars).

Grow your ride-hailing business with intermodality

Learn how you can:

  • Boost search to ride conversion rate
  • Increase ride frequency and average revenue per user
  • Improve vehicle utilisation and fleet efficiency

Download our free case study to find out how you can grow your ride-hailing business sustainably by providing intermodal service to customers.

3. FFPT can pull people from active mobility.

Furthermore, making public transit free for everyone will not just take commuters away from cars. It will also take people away from other modes of transport, especially from active mobility, one that we should be encouraging, like biking and walking. 

 

fare free public transportation ridership in Belgium
Source: UITP Full Free-Fare Public Transportation Objectives and Alternatives Policy Brief

When Hasselt in Belgium implemented FFPT from 1997 to 2014, bus ridership increased a staggering seven times. Many of these new users were former car commuters, however nearly an equal amount would have previously walked or cycled. 

 

We need to break out of the public transport versus private car binary.

Each mode is better suited to different parts of the urban landscape or different transportation needs. Different urban landscapes need different solutions.

Dare I compare this to the case of highways and congestion in the US; adding more highways elicits the spinning wheels of inductive demand. We need multifaceted solutions in urban mobility, not just a one-size-fits-all one. Let’s think in a broader, more dynamic way. 

Rather than using a limited budget to fund 100% FFPT, public transit authorities could rather apply partial FFPT in a more targeted and strategic way. Then, the remaining budget could be used to subsidise and incentivise other strategies that give commuters an attractive alternative to using their own private car. Here are some of my ideas of what those strategies could look like: 

  • Transit inclusion: Taxis used as part of taxi-public transport intermodal journeys could be subsidised to extend transit serviceability.
  • Mode sustainability: Other modes of sustainable transport, beyond just public transit, could be incentivised, like micromobility and pooled taxi rides.
  • Geographical fit: Car vehicle based service used in the city centre could be incentivised less (or not at all) compared to its use in the city outskirts.
  • Temporal fit: Car vehicle based service used outside of peak commuting hours could be incentivised less compared to its use outside of peak hours.

All or any of these various types of terms could be combined into a dynamic incentivisation strategy, adapting to real-time situations on the market, like local congestion level based dynamic pricing.

Seldomly do we ever solve a problem with one variation of a solution. Often, especially with challenges as complex as urban mobility, solutions need out of the box thinking with innovative, creative approaches

This is when intermodality can be used to encourage citizens to leave their cars at home. It makes sense. 

Intermodality between public transit in city centres and on-demand transportation outside central areas allows for better and more effective utilisation of each mode. For commuters, it can be faster, more reliable, and more comfortable. For ride-hail and taxi operators, it unlocks new growth opportunities while enhancing fleet utilisation.

Want to learn more about how intermodality could work in your city or with your business? Reach out to Juraj at juraj@mileus.com. Or, you can follow him on LinkedIn for more urban mobility insights.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

C

ongestion, noise pollution, CO2 emission, more accessible transportation options, better utilisation of urban spaces; these are the classic issues public transport authorities are up against. And the pressure to find a solution is getting more urgent as cities swell in size and climate change becomes a more pressing issue. We know targeting and reducing private car use are the best ways to get a handle on these issues. But the big question remains: 
 

How do we get citizens to leave their cars at home?

It’s not just a matter of city authorities telling citizens to leave their cars at home. What we need are attractive and realistic alternatives. This can come through either positive incentivisation, or top-down policy enforcement. 

“According to the European Environment Agency (EEA), emissions from transportation now account for more than 25% of overall greenhouse emissions in the EU.” – read this Mileus article about transport’s role in sustainable development goals.

Fare Free Public Transport (FFPT) is one of the front runners schemes city authorities have to incentivise and motivate people to leave their cars at home.

 

Taking a closer look at fare free public transport and its applications.

FFPT’s application can take form in two ways, partial or full, to improve air quality, reduce congestion, or for financial relief for commuters. Its partial application can take several forms depending on the issue it is targeting.

commuters on public transportation

FFPT can be partially granted to certain social groups. For example, in the school year of 2020, Paris introduced free public transit to residents under the age 18. Or, in Prague, it’s free to all seniors over the age of 70. The COVID-19 pandemic ignited several cities to provide FFPT to healthcare workers, like in Northern Ireland, Budapest, and Adelaide

It can be temporarily free for everyone at a unique time of urgency. Prague and Seoul are a couple of cities that have done this for limited periods of time to alleviate intense smog. 

4 ways to apply fare free public transportation
Source: UITP Full Free-Fare Public Transportation Objectives and Alternatives Policy Brief

Beyond just partial application, many cities have gone ahead with full, long-term FFPT; a 2020 report published by UITP counts nearly a hundred cases word-wide, with most of them being in European cities.

In March 2020, Luxembourg, the city with the highest number of cars per capita, launched FFPT across the country. From 1997 to 2014, Hasselt in Belgium ran FFPT. In 2019, Frýdek-Místek, a small town in Czechia, launched FFPT.

Cities around the world that use partial or full FFPT | Source: Free Public Transport

Fitting a square hole in a round peg: FFPT can’t solve everything.

So yes, I do think partial FFTP is an effective tool if it is applied in a tactile way to specific challenges as we’ve seen with many innovative examples. But is providing FFPT to everyone always the best solution to tackle all urban mobility issues in one sweep? 

This I am not so sure about.

Fixing a problem, particularly one as dynamic as urban mobility, can’t be solved with only one remedy. The idealistic notion that full FFPT is a long term solution is a problematic one that brings a laundry list of complications. 

1. FFPT doesn’t target effectively.

Sure, FFPT is useful for enabling price-sensitive or cash-strapped residents. But, they are not the commuters who we’re trying to get out of their cars and into public or shared transportation. 

FFPT is expensive, and so is public transit upkeep.

Across central and western Europe, public transit is subsidised by roughly 60% on average. So commuters are paying 40%, although usually seniors, children, and students pay a discounted rate.

If you raise the subsidy to 100%, public transit costs would increase tremendously, not because of the missed farebox revenue, but mainly for the additional infrastructure and maintenance costs. There are several competing issues to use limited pool tax money in cities. 

If public transit subsidy budgets can’t cope with this, the existing quality and efficiency of public transit will decrease significantly.  

 

2. Users won’t value public transit as much if they pay nothing for it.

In general, people generally don’t value things they get for free, particularly in the long term. Users would get used to FFPT the same way as you are used to paying 150 EUR for an annual seasonal public transit ticket.

A passenger paying 150 EUR for an annual public transit ticket would obtain 150 EUR in credits to claim for using other shared transportation services that make their journeys more comfortable, yet their environmental impact sustainable (i.e. without using private cars).

Grow your ride-hailing business with intermodality

Learn how you can:

  • Boost search to ride conversion rate
  • Increase ride frequency and average revenue per user
  • Improve vehicle utilisation and fleet efficiency

Download our free case study to find out how you can grow your ride-hailing business sustainably by providing intermodal service to customers.

3. FFPT can pull people from active mobility.

Furthermore, making public transit free for everyone will not just take commuters away from cars. It will also take people away from other modes of transport, especially from active mobility, one that we should be encouraging, like biking and walking. 

 

fare free public transportation ridership in Belgium
Source: UITP Full Free-Fare Public Transportation Objectives and Alternatives Policy Brief

When Hasselt in Belgium implemented FFPT from 1997 to 2014, bus ridership increased a staggering seven times. Many of these new users were former car commuters, however nearly an equal amount would have previously walked or cycled. 

 

We need to break out of the public transport versus private car binary.

Each mode is better suited to different parts of the urban landscape or different transportation needs. Different urban landscapes need different solutions.

Dare I compare this to the case of highways and congestion in the US; adding more highways elicits the spinning wheels of inductive demand. We need multifaceted solutions in urban mobility, not just a one-size-fits-all one. Let’s think in a broader, more dynamic way. 

Rather than using a limited budget to fund 100% FFPT, public transit authorities could rather apply partial FFPT in a more targeted and strategic way. Then, the remaining budget could be used to subsidise and incentivise other strategies that give commuters an attractive alternative to using their own private car. Here are some of my ideas of what those strategies could look like: 

  • Transit inclusion: Taxis used as part of taxi-public transport intermodal journeys could be subsidised to extend transit serviceability.
  • Mode sustainability: Other modes of sustainable transport, beyond just public transit, could be incentivised, like micromobility and pooled taxi rides.
  • Geographical fit: Car vehicle based service used in the city centre could be incentivised less (or not at all) compared to its use in the city outskirts.
  • Temporal fit: Car vehicle based service used outside of peak commuting hours could be incentivised less compared to its use outside of peak hours.

All or any of these various types of terms could be combined into a dynamic incentivisation strategy, adapting to real-time situations on the market, like local congestion level based dynamic pricing.

Seldomly do we ever solve a problem with one variation of a solution. Often, especially with challenges as complex as urban mobility, solutions need out of the box thinking with innovative, creative approaches

This is when intermodality can be used to encourage citizens to leave their cars at home. It makes sense. 

Intermodality between public transit in city centres and on-demand transportation outside central areas allows for better and more effective utilisation of each mode. For commuters, it can be faster, more reliable, and more comfortable. For ride-hail and taxi operators, it unlocks new growth opportunities while enhancing fleet utilisation.

Want to learn more about how intermodality could work in your city or with your business? Reach out to Juraj at juraj@mileus.com. Or, you can follow him on LinkedIn for more urban mobility insights.

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