Why free public transport would work

by Tracy Stokes on July 10, 2007

in Responsible Transport

Canadian publication The Tyee has put forward a case for why giving public transport away free would work. You may be thinking, that’s ludicrous, we’d end up paying for it in our taxes, and what’s the difference. Think about this, if there were no charge for public transport, there would also be significant savings. No fare evaders to chase, no tickets to print, fewer staff required.

The environmental benefits of free public transport are numerous:

  • reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • reducing other air pollutants
  • reducing noise pollution (especially with trams)
  • reducing run-off of toxic chemicals into fresh water supplies and ocean environments
  • reducing overall consumption of oil and petrol/diesel
  • reducing litter (train/bus tickets)
  • saving trees by eliminating the need to print tickets

Read these and the other 17 reasons (or more) to stop charging people to use the bus, or the tube, or trams. (via The Good Human)

Other people who think that free public transport is a good idea:

The Scottish Socialist Party
Members of the Safe Speed forum
Free Public Transit

A free public transport success story

It is 10 years since Belgium got worldwide media attention for a very ambitious project: free public transport in Hasselt. From the start until today, it remains a success story.

The new city council of 1995 realised that public transport was a major problem. There were only eight city buses and two lines in Hasselt before 1 July 1997, which covered about 500,000 km a year and only transported 360,000 passengers in 1996. After the renovation of the ring road around the city, turning it into a pedestrian-friendly and tree-clad ‘Groene Boulevard’, the city council presented an ambitious project to transport company De Lijn. With the words ‘Hasselt zal nooit meer hetzelfde zijn’ (‘Hasselt will never be the same’), the former mayor and later minister Steve Stevaert launched free buses on 1 July 1997.

The project was an instant success. Until 30 June 1997, there were an average of 1,000 bus passengers a day in Hasselt. Today, the average is 12,600 passengers a day. There are now 46 city buses on nine lines, including a boulevard shuttle and a city centre shuttle. Two nightlines run at night. Altogether, these city buses cover 2,258,638 km in a year. All this benefits mobility in Hasselt.

Will we ever have free public transport in the UK?

What do you think? Not anytime soon. It would take considerable campaigning (or a new government) for this to happen. There are definite environmental benefits to offering free public transport, but until governments realise that global warming is something we need to do something about as a matter of urgency, their egos and concerns over re-election will remain a barrier to positive change.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

pratical environmentalist September 24, 2007 at 1:45 am

The problem with this is that people don’t want to let go of their cars. Public transport isn’t too expensive for the majority of people, but it does tend to be inconvenient and lack the personal experience that a personal vehicle offers.
There have been many attempts to make public transportation more appealing to the masses, but the fact remains that people love their cars and just plain don’t want to let go of them.
Yes, public transport may be a little more popular if it was free and it may free up some resources as suggested here, but it wouldn’t truly have any kind of major impact or create any substantial change.


Stijn Vogels September 24, 2007 at 1:50 am

Living near Hasselt myself, I can only emphasize what a positive effect this project has had on the entire city and its surrounding area. Not only did the project have a positive effect on the environment, the huge media attention and reputation as green city attracted loads of tourists and shoppers. Plus, the free busy also travel to the suburbs, making it easier for a large part of the population (children/adults) to reach the city (schools/work). As far as I’m aware, no downsides have been reported yet.


prt_supporter September 24, 2007 at 2:37 am

PRT would be an obvious choice for this. It would be much more efficient than existing modes of transportation, both in terms of energy usage and time-wise for passengers.



Patrick September 24, 2007 at 3:09 am

Free transportation is great.
Should tourists be charged? I think if the bus or subway was free tourism would benefit.


emil September 24, 2007 at 4:01 am

this argument is full of holes.


jim leek September 24, 2007 at 5:47 am

I drove a bus. About 80% cost is paid by government subsidies. Why not make it 100%? Because people don’t appreciate something that’s free. Thugs, vandals, muggers will see a bus as a container of victims. Normal people will eventually have to take other transportation.


Patrick Smith September 24, 2007 at 5:49 am

When you or a company buys paper, like tickets, in essence you are putting an order in to plant more trees. Im all for free public transportation. It would have a lot of benefits both economic and environmental. Im just tired of hearing dont waste paper. If you want more trees use more paper period.


Jason Sares September 24, 2007 at 8:19 am

In downtown Austin, Texas you can take the local buses for free.



David Gethings September 24, 2007 at 1:19 pm

What interested me the most about this article are the numbers not given in it. At no point does the article state how many car journeys had been saved nor what impact the free public transport had on congestion. These numbers can be very subjective but I would expect some estimates.

The other point this article fails to make is that the ‘success’ of free public transport is also dependent on improving it availability. This was alluded to by the increased milage, from .5m km to 2.2m km.

However, while being fairly negative about the article I like the idea of free public transport. I think it would do well in the major cities.


mark knowles September 24, 2007 at 1:43 pm

The British Government and Richard Branson are interested in one thing and one thing only:
MONEY And I disagree that public transport is an affordable option at the moment. Just take a train from London to Birmingham and see. It’s damn near cheaper to fly.


andrew brooks September 24, 2007 at 3:59 pm

Free Public Transport would be beter for the environment and beter for those individuals that go from car to office to home. A little bit of extra walkiing that is unavoidable with public transport would be a godsend for health of the nation. Not to mention the cleaner air.

One thing people seem to forget about driving is that it takes up so much of your time and concentration. It is very stressful. On public transport you can relax, read something or catch up on some work. Especially on the train!


Bryce Stockwell September 24, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Sounds good in theory. I would love free public transport, but what of bus lines that are wasteful? I can see a potential problem with bus lines operating at an environmental/economic loss indefinitely with no metric to judge by. For example, a theoretical line that picks up only 1-5 rural passengers far away at great public expense might never stop running under such a system where fares/income are not accounted for.


Kevin September 27, 2007 at 4:31 am

Pretty much only bums and other degenerates ride the bus around here. I can’t say that’s the crowd I choose to surround myself with.


Milander October 1, 2007 at 2:31 pm

I’M assuming you are from the states Kevin.No european would make a comment like that.

As the post says, public transport is heavily subsidised already. The balance of the argument is that making it free would increase other avenues of public expenditure as a result of encouraging people to take advantage of free transportation. The first step is to realise that public transportation (pt) will never make a profit and as such is already ‘paid for’ by the government. The next step is to see beyond a car culture. If people know they can just hope on a bus or tram or train and visit a towns center or travel around a city it will encourage spot spending. Spot spending is the coke you pick up from the station vending machine, the visit to the museum shop you happened to go into on a whim.

Free transport opens up a town and gets people to go to places they wouldn’t normally go to because the “parking is so inconvinient”.

The taxes raised through sales and increased consumerism (the side benefits of free PT) more than outway the costs of implementing it.

Just my opinion…


Rimfax October 11, 2007 at 9:25 pm

If public transit is so efficient and clean, why does it cost more per person per trip than driving one person per car, even when you include the cost of depreciation and carbon offsets? Even when subsidized on the order of 80% and with all of the infrastructure paid for, it still costs more money and more time than most drivers spend for a given trip. They don’t even have a fraction of the liability exposure of most drivers because they are government-run. So, with all this extra cost to run when compared to cars and roads, is there really no comparable carbon production?


debronski October 27, 2007 at 5:17 am

In South Africa productivity is hampered by the high cost of public transport. If transport were free people could forget about how they are going to get to work and worry about doing the job at hand. It would also do away with the cost of maintaining a minibus taxi industry that takes hundreds of lives each year through negligent driving and poorly maintained vehicles. This service could be govt. controlled instead.


cutthecar May 2, 2008 at 9:38 am

Re: Rimfax

What does cost have to do with something being clean and efficient?
If something is cheap, it doesn’t mean it is clean or efficient in the environmental or even engineering sense. Also time isn’t a factor when considering the environment.

Cars are cheap because of the vast amount of cheap fossil fuels used to subsidise their use, combined with massive marketing campaigns and business infrastructures. The fact is if a car is cheap to run then it is because of a false bias and help given to support it. The down side is that if you want to walk somewhere where the car dominates, you will have a difficult and costly time trying to do so.


RedGreenInBlue October 1, 2008 at 3:37 pm


“For example, a theoretical line that picks up only 1-5 rural passengers far away at great public expense might never stop running under such a system where fares/income are not accounted for.”

Oh well, in that case we should dig up rural B-roads if the costs of maintaining those roads isn’t covered by the share of VED and fuel duty coming from the drivers who use them!

(Hint: transport has uses other than raising money.)

And local councils are quite happy to (ahem) scrap weekly refuse collections, cut mental health services, hike up Council Tax – and withdraw subsidies for bus routes under current funding arrangements. Why would they suddenly decide to start throwing money at your hypothetical under-used bus service if it became free at the point of use?

(Hint: they wouldn’t.)


Roy Wilkes November 23, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Spot on! And you are right to say this won’t happen without considerable campaigning. Which is why we have recently set up just such a campaign in Manchester. See http://www.freepublictransport.org.uk/


Hollie March 9, 2009 at 3:06 pm

I think that the idea of public transport is a really good idea. But I also think this will not happen unless we fight for it!


Cecile Mills April 12, 2009 at 6:19 pm

Seattle Washington has long had free bus transport in the downtown zone. As you travel away from Zone One, the fare increases until you reach the farthest bus zone, where you pay according to how many zones you’ve traveled through. It has been an amazing success from many measurements.

I would like to add some other savings:
• the plants and trees along streets and
freeways benefit from the reduction of
• the cost of building parking structures (as
now required for any commercial buildings);
• to reducing traffic, especially in crowded
areas would be reduced;
• adding to community, as people chat on the bus
• additional jobs, for bus cleaners and mechanics
and passenger support. I think every bus should
have an employee on to act as liaison and
problem solver.


Solway Recycling May 2, 2011 at 10:05 am

The Scottish Socialist Party seems to think it’s possible in Scotland. We are seeing rural services being shut down and smaller schools being put at risk.

There is a need for these types of service


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