Free for all: fare-free public transport is going places

At the end of 2018, the coalition government in Luxembourg announced plans to abolish charges for anyone using trains, trams and buses. Beginning next spring, public transport across the country will be free for all.  The measure extends an existing scheme allowing those under the age of 20 to travel free on the country’s public transportation network.

One of the driving forces behind the move is tackling air pollution, largely caused by motor vehicles. In the capital city of Luxembourg, traffic congestion is a serious problem, where a study has suggested that drivers in 2016 spent an average of 33 hours in traffic jams. Across Europe, air pollution is estimated to cause half a million premature deaths each year.

Beyond Luxembourg, the idea of fare-free public transport has been gaining ground. In September, Dunkirk became the largest city in Europe to introduce free transit on its entire bus network. And last summer, Estonia extended to the whole country a free public transport scheme that has been operating in the capital, Tallinn, since 2013. There’s also growing interest in developing fare-free transport in Germany and Paris.

Free public transport: the driving factors

While environmental and public health considerations have pushed the idea of free public transport up the political agenda, the measure is also seen as a way of boosting local economies and tackling social exclusion.

Tallinn’s city authorities believe that free public transport is not only good for those on low incomes, but also for persuading the better off to leave their cars at home while enjoying life in the city’s restaurants, cafes and shops. It’s also beneficial for the municipal finances: every time a resident registers for the scheme, a proportion of tax is allocated to the city. According to the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office, “We earned double as much as we have lost since introducing free public transport.”

Putting the brakes on fare-free travel

But free public transport hasn’t worked everywhere, and some schemes have been withdrawn, largely because the costs have been unsustainable.

  • In the 1970s, a free transportation experiment in Rome tried and failed to persuade drivers to exchange their private vehicles for public transport.
  • Forty years after it began, a city centre free bus service in Seattle was dropped as part of a cost-cutting programme in 2012.
  • Also in 2012, Portland’s inner city free public transport system, introduced in 1975, was withdrawn under a package of service cuts.
  • In 2014, spiralling costs forced the Belgian city of Hasselt to abandon a free transport programme that had been in operation since 1997.

Cost is also a factor giving pause for thought to cities considering new free public transport schemes. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is keen on the idea, but needs to take account of the revenue implications. Transport fares account for a third of the city’s transport budget, and universal fare-free travel would open up a funding gap of €3.5 billion a year. For the time being, she has proposed free public transport for children under 11.

Here, there, but not everywhere

The main point of free public transport is to encourage more people to leave their cars at home, resulting in reduced traffic congestion and better air quality. The big challenge is developing a public transport system that goes a long way to matching the flexibility, convenience and door-to-door travel times of private vehicles.

In 2016, a study of the Tallinn scheme found that, while public transport use increased by 14%, car use declined by only 5%. The biggest increase in public transport use came not from drivers, but from pedestrians and cyclists, whose journeys on foot or by bike fell by 35-40%.

Elsewhere, research has suggested that fare-free public transport is more suited to smaller communities than to big cities. A 2012 study of 39 fare-free transit schemes in the United States found that most were successful in attracting greater public transport usage. However, these schemes were mostly in small municipalities, holiday resorts, and university towns.

This research echoed the findings from a previous study, which also argued that eliminating fares for specific groups, such as students and older people, would be more effective than universal free transport in addressing traffic congestion in larger cities.

In the UK, this targeted approach has been adopted for older people, many of whom can travel by bus free of charge. In London, accompanied children under 11 can travel for free on the tube, DLR, Overground and TfL rail services. But, while students and young people can benefit from reduced fare schemes, the UK has not followed the example of the Netherlands, where students can travel on buses and trams for free.

All aboard?

Back in Luxembourg, some believe that fare-free public transport will fail to address the country’s traffic congestion and air pollution problems, and could actually make things worse for commuters. Another blogger has suggested that the scheme will not persuade drivers to leave the car at home:

“An alternative way of levelling the playing field between car driving and public transport without inducing even more people to travel is to increase the petrol tax. Indeed, petrol prices in Luxembourg are markedly lower than in neighbouring Germany, Belgium and France, which may well contribute to Luxembourgers’ reliance on cars.”

Many of those advocating free transport schemes are not setting out a one-size-fits-all approach. As the head of Tallinn’s European Union Office observes, the diversity of schemes in operation should encourage transport authorities to consider what’s right for their localities:

“Municipalities should be brave to use their city as a testing ground to find out what system is realistic for them to implement.”

Urban bike sharing: a tale of two cities

Bike sharing schemes are now a familiar feature of the urban landscape. From Montreal to Marrakesh, London to Lublin, more than 1000 cities around the world are learning that bike sharing can play a supporting role in reducing congestion, cutting air pollution, improving citizens’ health and boosting their reputations as great places to live, work and invest in.

But not all bike sharing schemes are progressing at an equal pace. While some, such as those in Paris and London are moving into the fast lane, others are struggling to stay upright. In today’s blog, we look at how two different cities – Seattle and Dublin – are tackling bumps in the road to better bike sharing.

Seattle

In recent years, bike-sharing schemes have been springing up in cities all over the United States. Among the success stories is Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare programme, which is rapidly becoming an integral part of the city’s transportation system.

On the other side of the country, however, Seattle’s Pronto bike share scheme had a difficult birth. In its first year, people took 142,832 rides on Pronto bikes (the comparable figure for Capital Bikeshare was one million rides). A year after its 2014 launch, Pronto became insolvent, and Seattle’s city council bailed out the scheme at a cost of $1.4 million. Last year, the council announced that Pronto would cease operations in March 2017.

Pronto’s disappointing performance has perplexed cycling enthusiasts in the city. One Seattle bike blogger observed:

“Washington, D.C. is freezing in the winter and horribly hot in the summer, but they’ve blown past us, definitely on bike share and also on their rates of bike commuting.”

The factors behind the failure of Pronto have been the subject of considerable debate. Some have blamed it on compulsory helmet laws in the city, pointing out that similar rules in Melbourne also resulted in poor take-up of its bike share scheme. Others have put forward a range of theories, from poor cycling infrastructure and inadequate marketing to Seattle’s rainy climate and hilly topography. The city’s bicycle club also weighed in, arguing that the scheme’s small size, insufficient density of bike stations and prohibitive pricing structure put the brakes on what should have been a success story.

Bike sharing in Seattle may be down, but it’s not out. The city council is preparing to launch a successor to Pronto that will provide electric bikes and double the number of stations. There are still concerns that the mandatory cycle helmet rule may discourage take-up, although helmets will also be available for hire.

The council hopes the new scheme will be launched in summer 2017. It remains to be seen whether motorized cycles can kick start Seattle’s bike sharing journey.

Dublin

In contrast to Seattle, Dublin’s experience of bike sharing started off with positive results. Within seven years of its 2008 launch, the Dublinbikes scheme had 55,000 long-term subscribers and had recorded over 10 million trips. An expansion in 2013 took bike sharing stations beyond the core of the city and delivered an extra 950 bikes.

The popularity of Dublinbikes has continued to grow, but would-be users have often been frustrated by the lack of available bikes and delays in further expansions. Funding difficulties lie at the heart of the problem.

Dublin City Council contracted the outdoor advertising company JCDecaux to operate the Dublinbikes scheme. In exchange, the company was given the right to advertising space at a number of locations around the city. Dublinbikes also secured sponsorship from Coca-Cola, and managed to stay in the black for its first six years. However, the scheme has been running a deficit since 2015.

The stark figures tell their own story:

  • the Dublin Bikes scheme costs €1.9m to run
  • subscriptions and usage charges generate €1.2m
  • sponsorship by Coca-Cola is €312,000

Under its contract with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council must fill the €388,000 shortfall, but the council is itself under financial pressure.  Expansion of the scheme would cost €1.2m, with a further €500,000 a year of running costs for the additional bike stations.

To fulfil its side of the Dublinbikes deal with JCDecaux, Dublin City Council proposed the placement of advertising screens in the southeast of the city. However, these plans were thrown into question in August 2016 when Ireland’s national heritage organization lodged objections. One heritage officer described the proposed screens as “nasty” “contemptible”, “tacky” and “grossly offensive”. City councillors subsequently voted against installation of the screens, leading to concerns that the costs would have to be shouldered by bike users.

In November 2016, the annual Dublinbikes fee rose by €5 to €25. That’s still lower than annual membership of London’s more extensive Santander bike share scheme (£90), but there are now concerns that the price increase will exclude people on low incomes or unemployed people, who may have found the bike share scheme more affordable than getting around by car or public transport.

Overcoming spokes in the wheel

Seattle and Dublin have experienced different problems in establishing their urban bike sharing schemes. But it’s worth remembering that Washington, DC’s early bike share scheme suffered very low use rates, while Montreal’s first attempt at bike sharing went bankrupt. Today, DC’s Capital Bikeshare is among the most admired in the world, and is contributing to cuts in congestion. Meanwhile, Bixi, which now operates Montreal’s bike share scheme, is exporting its expertise to other parts of North America.

Clearly, successful bike sharing schemes require careful planning, public participation, adequate funding and – perhaps most important of all – time to grow.