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Facilitating the mobility transition through free local public transport

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Around the world, there are cities in which public transport can be used free of charge—but this does not always mark a step towards a mobility transition.

Judith Dellheim is a senior research fellow and solidarity economy consultant at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Institute for Critical Social Analysis. She has been active for many years in international networks that advocate for free public transport. This article first appeared in LuXemburg and was translated by Gráinne Toomey and Ryan Eyers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Public transport is currently free in around 100 cities and municipalities around the world, 60 of which are within Europe. In Germany, public transport is currently free of charge in Pfaffenhofen, Bavaria, and free public transport was also introduced in Monheim on April 1st of this year. Tübingen is also set to follow suit. A “light” version of such schemes is in place in Augsburg, where free transportation was introduced the city centre with the aim of reducing traffic. The issue is also the subject of nationwide debate, with over 70 percent of the German population in favour of a public transport system that is free of charge. The number of cities and municipalities around the world that offer free transport has grown rapidly in recent times. Motivations behind its introduction differ, as do the experiences of localities that have taken up the concept since it was first trialled in the USA in the 1960s. Comparative analysis has shown that not all free public transport systems are created equal, and free public transport in itself does not equate to there having been a successful mobility transition (Dellheim and Prince 2018; Brie and Dellheim 2020). For a transport system based on the principles of solidarity and the protection of the environment, free public transport merely represents a single step—albeit an essential one.

Why Free Transport?

Three particular developments have led to the idea of a free public transport system becoming attractive to increasing numbers of citizens and city and municipal governments. First, the increasing levels of air pollution in city centres; second, the negative impact of heavy traffic on the quality of life for locals, and finally the necessity of adopting concrete measures in order to achieve national climate targets. Automotive traffic leads to huge traffic jams in many cities, affecting everyday life on both an individual and societal level. This results in wasted time, a more hectic pace of life, and elevated stress levels, all of which add up to increased aggression in cities. Reducing congestion was a major reason behind introducing free public transport in Avesta and Tórshavn in Sweden; on the Danish Faroe Islands; in Bełchatów, Poland; and now in Kansas City in the US. For the same reasons, Luxembourg is also set to abolish fares across its entire public transport network from March 2020.

An additional factor plays a part in many locations: namely, the fight against poverty and social exclusion. This has played a central role in the around 20 towns in Poland that have introduced free transport since 2010. Before these measures, children experiencing poverty often had to walk long distances to school, or were dependent on car owners for transport. For older people, transport fares meant that a visit to the doctor was sometimes unaffordable. Despite these factors, free public transport was consistently introduced in well-off and tourist-friendly areas, since a car-free central city zone would enhance the appeal of local businesses, cafes, and restaurants.

Not All Free Transport is Created Equal

The notion of a free public transport system refers to a single area where the entire public transportation network can be used free of charge for the full period of operation on all days of the week. There are, however, different models that have different political implications. In the Estonian capital of Tallinn, for instance, fare-free travel is only available to inhabitants who are officially registered there, while in Dunkirk, France, anyone can travel for free. This not only raises the issue of general accessibility, such as for those without papers, but also the highly charged issue of how data is generated and handled for such purposes—when someone taps their residential ID on a sensor every time they travel, for example, a profile of their individual movements can be created. What happens to this data, and who does it belong to? On the other hand, random ticket checks or the simultaneous monitoring of passengers can result in an increase in racist and ethnic discrimination. And are refugees considered inhabitants or not?

That free transport is in itself not an emancipatory project is demonstrated by the example of the Latvian capital Riga, where it was a right-wing city administration that introduced free public transport. A further example can be seen in the municipality of Monheim in North Rhine-Westphalia, where the free “Monheim Pass” was refinanced by a surge in revenue that resulted from an aggressive regional economic policy. Specifically, trade tax was halved in the municipality in order to poach businesses and investors from other areas. In this case as well as in others it is clear that the concept of free transport is always bound up with the question of sustainable and solidarity-oriented financing and use. Is free transport financed by surpluses resulting from a policy based on fiscal dumping? Or is it a key component of a social policy of redistribution and a contribution to the reduction of traffic and the mobility transition? The latter question applies if the expansion of local transport infrastructure is compensated for by higher car parking charges, for instance.

Free Public Transport as a Stimulus for Change

Free public transport can serve as much more than a control instrument for transport policy; it can be incorporated into a politics that facilitates the participation in and democratization of public service provisions. An example of this is provided by Maricá, a city of around 150,000 inhabitants located within the greater metropolitan area of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil that is famous for its attractive beaches. Prior to the introduction of free public transport, many children and young people from poor urban areas had never seen the Atlantic Ocean. In a state dominated by the right, the introduction of free public transport was important on both a social and democratic level. Solving mobility issues was intended to improve citizens’ social and environmental living conditions as well as their ability to co-exist with one another. Offering people the opportunity to travel for free increases social participation, political engagement, and the overcoming of segregation. On the whole, the introduction of free public transport should thus also contribute to the democratization of political decision-making processes.

Maricá’s buses, which are generally very modern and even offer Wi-Fi, are financed by public funds, in particular by taxes levied on companies located in the region. While it should be noted that the companies of most economic importance to the region are part of the energy industry and operate in a way that is highly destructive to the environment, the city does have a plan for transitioning from finite fossil energy sources and expanding public services. This will involve a wider range of mobility options, for instance a rental bike scheme that can be used for free, as well as services in the areas of education, healthcare, and care provision. The overall intention is to create new, sustainable jobs, with the resulting tax revenue then able to be channelled into changing the funding base for the public network system.

A Contradictory Tale

The notion that not all free public transport systems are created equal, and that the concept of free public transportation can in fact result in contradictory effects, is not a new one, and has been around since the concept’s very beginning. The lifespan of free public transport initiatives has often been short-lived, and have been consistently resisted and threatened with cancellation in the political arena. Moreover, in many places free public transport schemes ended up being too modestly sized and isolated to contribute to a sustainable transition in the transport system. Ironically, it was a city near Los Angeles called Commerce that in 1962 first attempted to bring in free public transport, with a  number of pilot projects following across the US in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Similar to today, the protagonists of those movements argued for free transport in terms of its societal benefits, in particular increased mobility for job seekers and those on lower incomes. They set out the abolition of fares and the development of the public transport network as being significantly cheaper than investing in automotive infrastructure. Today, there is free public transport in around 30 locations in the United States—mostly small towns or municipalities with both urban and rural areas (e.g. Edmond, Oklahoma), university towns such as Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or areas within natural parks and tourist resorts such as Crested Butte and Estes Park (both in Colorado). However, socially marginalized groups are often the very people who benefit least from these free transport options, given that only the wealthy can afford to live in or near the centre of a university town or an area that is popular with tourists. Regional public transport is usually non-existent or if available, only at exorbitant prices, while affordable parking spaces on the outskirts of cities are rarely connected to good transport networks. And even if more and more cities and municipalities are introducing the option of free public transport—as is currently the case in Kansas City, where it was brought into force several weeks ago—the US is yet to experience a success story in this regard. Free public transport initiatives in larger cities such as Mercer County, New Jersey and Denver, Colorado have been abandoned: a dramatic worsening of social issues, increased automobile production, and expanded traffic meant that there was a lack of political will in activating a true mobility transition.

The situation is similar in Europe, where the first free public transport experiment took place in 1971 in Colomiers, a suburb of Toulouse in France. Initiatives in Rome and Bologna followed, each within the context of local political disputes, where a strong left was for a short time able to leverage their hegemonic position to put forward concrete measures that would support solidarity-driven ways of life. Following their defeat, tax and financial reforms were put in place in Italy that prevented the continuation of these measures. In Germany, a free public transport system introduced in Templin, Brandenburg in 1997 was unable to continue after 2002 due to budgetary conditions. For many years, the best-known example of a free public transport system in Europe was Hasselt, in Belgium. The ruling social democratic municipal administration in this designated “car city” abandoned plans for the construction of a new bypass in 1996 and expanded the public transport network instead. Unfortunately, the project was ended in 2013 due to increasing operational costs and shifts in political representation—and these sixteen years were too short to establish a sustainable pattern of mobility or leave privately owned cars by the wayside.

Organizing the Transition

The introduction of free public transport alone has in itself not had far-reaching effects on environmental policies, nor has it necessarily resulted in a relative reduction in traffic-related CO2 emissions—at least not in the short term. The examples of Tallinn, Hasselt, and Templin all illustrate that passenger numbers have skyrocketed as a result of many people who would have previously made short journeys on bicycle or foot now having been “enticed” into using public transport instead.

Avoiding a repeat of the above for reasons of public health and environmental protection is a specific goal of the Erfurt branch of Die Linke, who are currently working on an extensive concept for urban development that incorporates free public transport. Their focus is on making it easier for people to get around on foot, and on developing an intelligent bike- and car-sharing system. It is clear that considerable effort is required to really get people to give up using their cars. Some studies show that only after experiencing high parking fees and a public transport network that is significantly faster than travelling by car will people actually switch to using bus and train. The example of Tallinn with its 430,000 inhabitants certainly speaks to this hypothesis: certain demographic groups were already able to use public transport for free prior to 2013, but a noticeable change in the use of public transport did not come about until fare-free travel was extended to regional trains that ran through the city.

In conclusion, it is evident that a well-developed municipal and regional free public transport system is especially successful when it is integrated into a policy that centres on the health and wellbeing of citizens, aims to facilitate residents’ active participation in society (especially from socially marginalized groups), and endeavours to increase everyone’s leisure time. As long as real alternatives for public transport exist, high parking fees and a more general “discrimination” against cars are socially just policies. A public transport system that is free of charge, or paid for via a staggered fare system, could then serve as a unifying project for all those who want to get involved in finding fair solutions to specific mobility issues, as well as facilitating a self-determined way of life that offers dignity, solidarity, and an unspoilt environment for everyone.

Bibliography

Dellheim, Judith and Prince, Jason (eds.), Free Public Transit: And Why We Don’t Pay To Ride Elevators, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 2018.

Brie, Michael and Dellheim, Judith, (eds.), Nulltarif. Luxus des Öffentlichen im Verkehr: Widersprüchlicher Fortschritt einer Idee im ÖPNV, Hamburg: Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, 2020.