Last Updated on Thursday, 14 October, 2021 at 2:27 pm by Andre Camilleri
The problem with “free” Is that someone somewhere is out there paying for it. After Monday’s budget speech, one measure, in particular, stood out. Free public transport is to be introduced for residents as of October next year. But does it work? Can it really be free? Luxembourg was the first country in the world to make all public transport free. As of March 2020, all buses, trains and trams throughout the country can be boarded without paying a fare – the largest area to instigate free public transport for both residents and tourists so far. Free public transport, however, isn’t a new idea. Cities and towns have been experimenting with it since 1960 – Luxembourg merely clinches the title of the first country to roll it out nationwide, not just city-specific. Malta’s stance is a little different, it will be just the public bus system, and tourists will still require a paid ticket.
Yet bac in 2013, Tallinn in Estonia became the largest city to offer free public transport. It has a population of 420,000- not too far from Malta’s, with a transport network consisting of five tram lines, eight trolley bus lines and 57 bus routes. Allan Alaküla, head of Tallinn’s EU office in Brussels, said at the time public transport was made free in the city because of “social urgency” and rising ticket costs.
Now, fast forward to March 2021. The National Audit Office of Estonia has been investigating the free public transport introduced in Tallinn, including the free bus and tram travel for local registered people. The analysis included studying whether economic feasibility and the mobility needs of people had been taken into account when deciding to cut the payment by users. “What is positive is that the decline in the share of public transport users has stopped for a couple of years,” stated Auditor General Janar Holm. “Unfortunately, not a significant number of new users have been attracted to public transport even though over the recent years, the state has allocated more and more funds to cover the costs of county bus transport and has allowed people to travel by bus free of charge in most counties.” Results on the county model were that free public transport had not reached its goal to reduce car journeys. Whilst public transport use numbers have increased, still, more than half of all trips to work are made by car. Additionally, it was found that the bus network is not designed to meet people’s mobility needs.
Experts from the Cosmopolis Centre in Brussels agree that the effects of free public transport on car traffic levels are marginal, arguing that by itself free public transport cannot significantly reduce car use and traffic, or improve air quality.
So what can? Well, the researchers found that the behaviour of motorists and the transport mode they choose depends very little on public transport fares. Rather than relying on free public transport to engineer the shift, a more effective way to reduce the number of people choosing to drive could be regulating car use.
Locally, we must question what the intention is here for the free system. How successful fare abolition is at tempting people to use public transport depends on many factors, such as the quality of the service. Cleaner and more reliable public transport, not to mention a solid infrastructure, must be a prerequisite for these schemes if buses are to compete with the car. Ultimately, making it part of a wider investment plan could have a significant impact on transport sustainability, but we must look closely at those who have implemented such systems.