01 October 2022

Free public transport is not an environmentally friendly policy

Auckland's leading leftwing Mayoral candidate, Efeso Collins, has as one of his key platforms making public transport "free" at the point of use, by which he means he'll force everyone else (ratepayers and he's hoping taxpayers, as well as car and truck drivers) to pay for it.

The Greens, who want everything to be free, except your property rights, speech, powers to buy and sell and contract generally, support this.

Given how much publicity has been given to this idea, it's worth giving it a review.  You'll say, quite rightly, that a libertarian could never countenance forcing people to pay for others to get around, and you're right. Philosophically, the idea that if you want to travel somewhere, for whatever reason, that other people should be forced to pay for your choice of travel, is an anathema to individual liberty.  

However, let me put that to one side.  Does the idea that public transport should be fully taxpayer funded, has some merits? Could it actually result in less traffic, less pollution?

Tallinn, Estonia implemented free tram and bus travel for local residents in 2013. The National Audit Office of Estonia reviewed the impacts of the policy and came to the following conclusions:
  • It did not reach its goal of reducing car journeys
  • Public transport use increased, but not significantly
  • Bus network doesn't meet the need of car users
A more detailed study of the impacts was more damning and it was based on a large scale survey in the city.  Note Tallinn previously had a fare-box cost recovery level of around one-third, so one-third of operating costs were recovered from fares, so fares were not high before. 
  • Trips by public transport increased by 14%
  • Trips by car decreased by 10%
  • Trips by walking decreased by 40%
  • Average distance travelled by car increased by 13%, resulting in total vehicle kms driven increased by 31%
Much of the public transport trip increase was for 15-19yos, 60-74yos, those on very low incomes, the unemployed/not in education.  However public transport trips for those on higher incomes decreased due to crowding. Higher income people preferred to drive. 

In short, free public transport saw more trips, most of them came from active modes, meanwhile the reduced car trips were more than offset by the remaining car trips being longer distances.  

This shouldn't be a surprise, Hasselt, Belgium (78,000 people) introduced free public transport in 1996.  The experience of that city was mixed:
  • Public transport trips went up ten-fold
  • 63% of additional public transport trips were existing users travelling more frequently
  • 37% of additional public transport trips were new users, but only 16% came from car trips, the remainder were from bicycle and walking.  So the majority of mode shift was from active modes.
  • There was also a five-fold increase in the bus fleet, doubling in bus routes and significant increase in frequencies at the same time as abolition of fares
  • There was no noticeable impact on car ownership or change in trip mode share
  • Free fares were dropped in 2014 because of the cost, with fare concessions applying only to only a small minority of passengers.
In short, free public transport saw people who already used it, used it a lot more often, and the majority of new users switched from walking and cycling to riding public transport.  

Templin, Germany (15,000 people) also introduced free public transport, in 1997.  The result were:
  • 12 fold increase in patronage, with the majority being young people and children
  • 35-50% of the modal shift came from walking, 30-40% from cycling, with only 10-20% coming from car trips
  • Vandalism increased attributed to the higher numbers of younger passengers.
Once again, the main impact of free public transport is to attract people from active modes, so people ride buses instead of walking and cycling.  This costs more for taxpayers, costs more for the environment and so is a negative net impact overall. 

In NONE of the case studies of free public transport was there a meaningful impact on traffic congestion.  

In ALL of the case studies the two main impacts were:
  • to encourage people who already use public transport to travel a lot more often
  • Reduce walking and cycling (because people who walked and cycled found it quicker and easier to just hop on a bus)
Free public transport has a small impact on driving, but it is hardly worth the cost. It has a big impact on walking and cycling, which is a transfer from zero emissions transport to transport that generates emissions, both directly (fuel and electricity) and indirectly (production of buses/trams/trains, road/rail wear and tear).  

Some may say there is utility in people doing more trips by public transport, but if they were trips that weren't going to happen anyway, then the question is why should taxpayers/ratepayers pay for people to do joyrides, to visit friends, visit places they never thought of going before, just because it's free? Why is that a good use of taxpayer/ratepayer money?  

The simple truth is that free public transport is a political bribe that sounds nice, and gets a lot of support from some on the Green-left despite the evidence being that it is anti-environmental.  It might make a small difference to car trips, but it makes a big difference to reducing walking and cycling - and it generates a lot of arguably unnecessary trips.

So maybe consider that when voting in the local elections.

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