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The Case for Free Public Transport in Every City Worldwide
A Strategy for Reducing Emissions, Pollution and Making Cities Liveable
An earlier version of this article was written but unpublished back in 2008 and it has now been revised and published to take account of various changes since then.The case is made for the provision of free public transport in every major town and city worldwide for a multitude of reasons. It has always been a good idea and should have been done a long time ago, but now with three major issues of our time; resource depletion, including oil, pollution and the climate crisis; they make it imperative that we move to such a system, both to conserve dwindling supplies of cheap energy, to reduce the use of vast mineral resources to make hundreds of millions of cars and to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions because climate change is happening faster than expected.
The Earth's climate has turned out to be more sensitive and complex than anticipated as evidenced by the recent dramatic record breaking summer ice melts in the Arcticc1 in 2007, 2008, 2012 and basically every year since then. With such a large change in the albedo or reflectivity over a huge area of the Arctic, this signifies the jump into positive feedback of the climate system, although it is not the only positive feedback. Combined with preliminary reports that frozen methane is beginning to be released from the Arctic sea floor and tundra and given that methane is 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas, it is clear we are probably at the point of things running out of control. Emissions need to be cut drastically, starting about 20 years ago.
Moving to free and well-designed public transport allows society to deal with these problems in the least disruptive manner and to do so in the most equitable way and it would increase the shared sense of everyone working together to cope with what are essentially going to be permanent problems. Free public transport is not the full solution but is definitely an important first step. Switching to public transport has the potential to achieve large scale reductions in fuel use and it can be done immediately without further research or perfection of any technology. The current status quo plan to replace all the petrol and diesel fuelled cars with electric ones still leaves us with the problem of massive resource usage, a replacement of oil wars for lithium wars, traffic congestion, deaths from air pollution , high accident rates and actually high energy use. It does not matter if the heavily promoted so called solution of producing millions of electric cars is run on renewable energy because it would require vastly more wind farms, solar farms and whatever else compared to a transport solution based on highly efficient, globally deployed free public transport system which would only require a fraction of energy and resources of a car based one.
Hasselt, Belgium: A Case Study of a Free Public Transport System
It is not widely known but there were and are a number of small cities in the world that are already running free or partially free public transport systems. The most famous and popular and the one which others strive to as their ideal, is in the city of Hasselt2 (pop. 70k) in Belgium. This system ran from 1997 to 2013 and was extremely popular but was ended when there was a change of political power.
The free public transport system in Hasselt came about as a result of the city council trying to decide what to do about the chronic traffic and whether to build yet another ring road as the existing one was clogged with cars, even though the city was in debt. Indeed at one stage Hasselt had the highest level of car ownership in Belgium and the city itself had only two bus lines operating.
At approximately the same time in middle of 1996, the Flemish transport minister Eddy Baldewijns, had created an integrated transport policy framework in which public transport was allocated a primary role. The city of Hasselt was one of the first cities to adopt the plan. Mayor Steve Stevaert proposed to give absolute primacy on the city's Green Boulevard (ring road) to public transport. The mobility policy in Hasselt developed into an example of cooperation between the bus line, the Flemish government and the city of Hasselt, under the motto "the city guarantees the right of mobility for everyone".
In an example of the foresight that people possess but rarely get to use, the City Council and Mayor realized that just making it free was not enough and that the system needed to be significantly upgraded. And so the number of bus lines was increased from 2 to 9 reaching every part of the city, the frequency of service increased to every 30 minutes and 15 minutes at rush hour. This was done in the 3 months prior to the service being made free. Other changes were made too, such as creating park and ride facilities, moving large city centre carparks further out and adding traffic calming measures elsewhere and significantly increasing bicycle lanes and cycle ways.
Predictably the corporate media went mad and the officials clearly took the heat but stood their ground on the plan and so the system went live on 1st July 1997. For the city it was an immediate success. Life returned to it once again by allowing public spaces to open up and function properly, filled with people rather than cars.
The figures below from the official city records testify to the success of the scheme.
Tallinn, Estonia: Case 2 of a Free Public Transport System
From Jan 1st 2013, the city of Tallinn made public transport free for residents and was used as an incentive to get people to move back into the city. The most interesting part is they probably have the best financial method because it is paid out of the city taxes. The more people move into the city and use it, the more tax they will get to fund it as costs go up since more people use it. It still requires the political commitment to make the funding available. Tallinn has since gained 11,000 people and an increase of €11 million in revenue. That suggests each person is paying €1000 in city taxes and it is highly unlikely all that money goes to transport which suggests they are getting free transport for much less.
Other Cities with Free Public Transport
There are a number of other small cities in the world which have or had limited free public transport. In some cases it is free only for those under 18 and the senior citizens. In other cases, only part of the transport network was or is free such as inner city hubs and some of these limited solutions are not very effective because they don’t illustrate the full potential. In addition many have suffered with the finance methods used to fund them.
Just recently the country of Luxemburg announced it would introduce free public transport throughout the whole country from next year and some cities in Germany and France are now considering free public transport. Hopefully it is designed well and useful enough that it becomes a permanent success.
Perception, Preparation and Service are very important
Making a proposal to introduce free public transport will go down differently in different cities and towns depending on how good or bad the transport system is in each place. A bad transport system can turn public opinion against it and for those who would oppose the scheme that is their aim. Should a free public transport system, especially in a high profile city, get close to fruition, the opponents would try to sabotage it through bureaucratic channels and politically, lobby against it, and negate it in the media and at the very least try to at least make it ineffective. It would be full spectrum opposition. Make no mistake this is serious business and it would challenge some very powerful players –e.g. auto, oil industry & car insurance. It is well documented how at the start of the car age, when many US cities had very effective trams and trolley systems, that the growing car companies secretly bought up these entities through front companies and then set about neglecting maintenance, restricting finance and destroying them whilst at the same time heavily promoting the new 'better' alternative -the private motor car. In effect what they did and what the opponents today would do is to try and change the public perception of the concept of free travel and turn it into a negative. And once that idea is planted in people’s heads, it can be hard to dislodge it.
Therefore a free transport system has to been well designed so that people actually use it not because it is just free but because it is useable and effective and releases time previously wasted on the act of driving. The free part is more about making it equitable across all social classes and encouraging uptake.
Taking the case of Hasselt again, they did the smart thing and prepared the system well in advance of the launch date for free travel. When you look at public transport networks of any major city, you find that most of the routes form a radial pattern with all routes heading to the city centre and only a few traversing non central areas. Yet many people on their daily commutes do not follow this radial pattern, but travel to areas on the periphery of the city, e.g. to places of employment like business parks. It therefore makes sense to add and modify routes so that the network resembles more a spider’s web or mesh with multiple routes in concentric circles to allow these other directions of travel. This may not seem important but it is crucial, because if you travel by car to work to some part of the outer rim of a city, you will drive across rather than take the bus in and then back out of the city centre to your workplace which is going to take longer. And whether the bus is free or not, if a more direct route is not offered, then you won't have the time or inclination to make use of it. Practicalities matter
The other thing they did in Hasselt was increase the service to every half hour during the day and every 15 minutes during rush hour. This is just as important. To be useful, the service must be regular, predictable and timely. The service has to be made good enough so that you can depend on it, and gets you to your destination comfortably. Creating a public transport system that involves waiting for ages and then standing in a crowded bus will not work. This means bus shelters to protect from rain, signage, clear maps, timetables and real-time information & apps that are accurate.
Unfortunately the car has taught us to be impatient with the slightest imperfection with public transport but strangely not with cars and that mode of travelling itself. So while people complain a lot publically about waiting for buses for more than 10 minutes, they tend to be less vocal and more accepting of being stuck in traffic at near standstill for 30 minutes or more a day. This must be something to do with the constants adverts over the years showing cars driving along empty roads in beautiful countryside and trying to equate it with freedom. The adverts seem to have been a success in that regard.
Probably one of the most important reasons for the popularity of a car is that you can depart whenever you want and since it is your car, this is equivalent to a 24 hour service. Thus for public transport, reducing the wait time brings it closer to the idea of leaving when you are ready and having a good network that penetrates every area of the city means it brings it as close as possible. The car-centric rosy view of the world of course breaks down when the cars meet up in their thousands on the same busy main roads, namely chronic traffic, resulting in longer travel times, increased costs on fuel and of course stress. In cities, this is where buses can do better and move masses of people quickly so long as buses, trams and trains are given priority and kept clean and pleasant. It can be a lot less stressful to sit back and have a read or listen to music on a bus than to spend a hour gripping the steering wheel focused on the car in front, especially when you know that you could be doing better things with your precious free time. And all the better if Wi-Fi is available on all buses, trams and trains.
Do People Want This?
Most certainly yes. In Hasselt, people absolutely loved their free fare system. In Ireland where if you are over 66 years of age, public transport is free7 on bus and rail countrywide, the scheme is very popular. Polls everywhere consistently show that people are overwhelming in favour of free public transport. For example a nationwide survey8 of Australians revealed two-thirds want free travel on buses, trains and ferries, funded from Federal Government surpluses. There are other towns in the world with free public transport9 but none implemented as well or on the same scale of Hasselt (during the time it was running), but even in these places it is still very popular.
What is often not realized is that most people have incredible common sense but you would never know it from the media which tends to reinforce the false belief that we are too ignorant for thinking about how we should run society and instead we should leave it to the experts that have given us endless wars, waste, and exploitation of the land and oceans. For example polls consistently show that an overwhelming number of people (both on the right and left) are in support of clean water, clean air and protecting the environment. Given the awful state of these resources worldwide you would never suspect that is the case. Actually what it does prove is what an excellent job PR spin and disinformation by various vested interests have done to distort the public "debate".
The key point in all of this is that since the media is owned by vested interests they control what gets debated and the views aired and thereby can shape public opinion through distortions, misdirection and disinformation. In the last few years, it has got worse and most of the fake news is now coming from the same vested interests. Then on an individual basis all of us who are exposed to this daily, make the assumption that everyone has the same opinion as what is presented in the media through print, radio, TV and Internet/social media. This works because humans have an ingrained sense of the wisdom of the (diverse) crowd.10 This probably worked very well for the previous 50,000 years or so of human history, but today the crowd has now largely been substituted with the corporate media and we swim in that 24x7 hrs. And since it does not inform us with true facts, but instead the ones spun by them and an endless stream of distraction, then it becomes harder to make an informed decision. For the great span of time in which the last part of our intelligence evolved, people would have had diverse experiences and survival knowledge and so everyone’s view counted because it would have taken real intelligence to get through life and this is why our minds implicitly seek and go along with the opinions of others because those people opinions counted but today that innate mechanism is the leverage by which PR, propaganda and marketing completely distort our reality.
In general everyone will want something that is free. It’s hard to think of a reason you would want to pay given the choice of paying nothing. Those opposing it will always set out their argument on the basis that we can't make it free because it will harm us, whether it be through increased taxation, job losses, lower sales of cars or increased inconvenience, not that traffic congestion, road deaths, pollution and climate change are ever presented as any kind of problem. There is always talk about costs but the external negative costs just mentioned are never allowed to appear on any balance sheet. Really the argument needs to be viewed from a different perspective which is that transport, currently dominated by the private car is actually costing us all a lot and denying us of other choices. That does not get discussed in any meaningful way.
The core principle behind free transport is simply that by sharing resources (i.e. buses, trams) and costs (fuel, insurance, car tax), we lower the cost for everyone. In fact that is the principle behind any large economic organisation, which is about being able to do things through economies of scale. This is another reason why it is important to make public transport free at least at the point of use but being paid through taxation, because when you have to pay for these shared resources on an individual basis then they do not get shared equally.
What does it Cost and How to Pay for It
Obviously there are costs to running any public transport system and it is worth doing some analysis here to see what they are and what are the tax options since, if it is going to be free at end use then it has got to be paid through taxes of some sort or another.
For the case of Hasselt, figures4 for 2006 give a total cost of €3.4 million to run the service per year. The city paid 25% of this and the Flemish government 75%. Taking this total and dividing by the population of Hasselt (70k) works out at just under €50 per person for a year of free travel. Anyone would agree that is an outstanding bargain. Yet in the end the regional government didn’t want to pay it.
The problem with tax is that people don’t have a clear view of where the money is spent and it has been frequently cited for many a country (ref subsidy), how large direct and indirect subsidies are paid out to various vested industries such as the fossil fuel one. In the case of Ireland it was discovered that this amounts to €4,000m in potentially environmentally damaging subsidies every year. Further on, it is shown that for the case of Dublin with over 1 million people, free public transport could be provided for less than a fraction of this value. This should be borne in mind when the media shouts out how awful free transport would be because it would raise our taxes. We are already spending enormous amount of our tax on truly harmful things. Let’s just divert the tax.
Throughout the world, countries use different schemes for funding public services. Prior to the Thatcher-Reagan right-wing revolution in the 1980s, they were mostly funded out of taxes and back then the rich paid much higher taxes. At the same time the rise of the use of tax havens by multi-national corporations has diverted trillions per year collectively away from national governments and which has resulted in increased taxes at point of use like sales and VAT taxes to partially make up the shortfall. Incidentally the billionaire class produced by this revolution now use their new found wealth through the mechanism of vulture funds to price the present generation out of buying a home and screw them continually for high rent.
From the 1980s to the present, the trend has been to privatise public services and get the public to pay directly. Generally the wealthier part of society has little need for public service, particularly public transport, but health and education too. However this sort of mechanism is one of the least equitable and ends up denying the people who need it, a decent service. Because of the lack of political will (or is it that private security firms and intelligence agency / one percenters nexus have the dirt on most key politicians and thereby own them and control what they legislate for) to fund public transport, it has largely got worse and less useful over the decades. This dynamic has contributed to the huge increase in car ownership since then and all the associated problems. Coincidently higher car sales enriches the already rich.
The types and amount of taxes levied vary considerably from country to country. In some, taxes are raised nationally and city councils are funded from the central exchequer. In others, the councils or cities have limited tax raising abilities ranging from a sales tax to perhaps just a commercial rates tax. Into this mix should be added the equally diverse politics for how the allocation is organised and where decision making and power lies. The balance of power and of finance can have a significant bearing on how easy or difficult it might be for a city or region to implement free public transport. The capitalist class has tried to lock down these choices by legalisation at EU level over running of services and how they should go out to tender and declaring illegal and anti-competitive “government” subsidies. Essentially they are directives to permanently keep public services, including public transport, privatised. Other incentives waiting in the wings like investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanisms of free trade agreements would permanently transfer all control to corporations since most of these agreements are to do with not trade but services which include things like education, health and transport.
Therefore to bring in free transport, there are political obstacles, at local, regional, state and even EU level in the case of Europe and no doubt federal in the case of USA. Financial ones would parallel this to some degree.
Clearly the specifics of each city would mean the costs would vary to some degree and it would be very important that the plan on how to fund free public transport is made clear and transparent, otherwise it would be too easy for detractors to raise fears that it would cost everybody more and at the same time use criticism of existing public transport system as a means to demonstrate that it wouldn't work. This could easily cast doubt in people's mind and result in lack lustre public support. And in cities where public transport is worst and likely to have high car usage, it would be harder to make the argument just where it is needed most.
Without a clear example of a working free public transport system and all the benefits it brings, it is hard to imagine what a well-designed, useful free system would be like. As an analogy, imagine if the Internet was not free how that would stifle and kill so many of the positive aspects of it –that is if they are any remaining left now that social media corporations have seized considerable control of it, through dominance. Would you want to use it then and would you explore it in the same carefree manner? If you had to pay 0.1 cent for every site you visited, wouldn't it dramatically change the whole feel of it? It is still not free since most of us pay an internet provider but after that it feels free and essentially is. One can of course make the argument, especially with regards social media, that it is not free, because we give away all our privacy since that is the product sold onwards.
The underlying principle in all of this is that sharing resources amongst people will always be cheaper than people individually trying to go it alone. As an example taking a conservative figure, lets assume that 20 people started taking the (free) bus for the work commute –assuming the service is improved to make that possible. Then if each person was spending €500 to €1,000 a year on petrol just on driving to work and this is a realistic figure, then for 20 people, this ranges from 20 x €500 = €10,000 to 20 x €1,000 = €20,000. If say half of those people either got rid of the cars or did not purchase a replacement because they were satisfied with public transport and could function with it, doing short term car rental instead for those cases a few times a year when a car is needed, then the scheme would divert the capital cost of purchase to other more productive uses. For 10 cars this could easily amount to 10 x €20,000 = €200,000 available to the economy. And that is just for 10. Scaling this up to a city of a million people, with 1 car per 3 people or 300,000 cars, then whether you have a deferred purchase of 10%, 20% or 50% of cars, the savings of capital for other uses would be enormous besides the savings on fuel. And that money is available to each household. The savings are probably more than would be needed for each of those same households to retrofit them for energy savings or installation of solar panels because heating is one of the other really big users of energy and thereby emissions.
Scaling that up to city size and then to say all the cities in the UK and then to all the cities in Europe and from there to the rest of the world, the savings would be enormous. Collectively maybe the savings would even match or exceed the size of the USA military budget of €7,000+ million! And maybe the USA and it’s vassals could reduce their military budget as the urge to fight oil wars would be less. Unlikely.
As we can see it would be wrong to focus on the tax cost per person, without also looking at the savings per person and the environmental savings in health, pollution, road traffic accidents and climate change because these are real costs too and not as abstract as we have been led to believe.
The Cost for Dublin Bus Serving 1 million+ People
The original version of this article used 2006 figures and a check of 2014 Dublin Bus accounts show costs and outlays have changed very little so they are still valid.
To help put some numbers on this, the case is taken for the city of Dublin with a population of 1 million approximately. The annual accounts from Dublin Bus for 200612 shows it cost €260 million a year to run the fleet of 1,100 buses on 189 routes and it carried 146 million passengers (Note: They have since reduced the number of buses, leading to more cars on the road.) The total fuel costs were only €17 million, whilst salaries made up the biggest fraction at roughly 60%. It is difficult to determine the cost of fare collection and associated administration but it could be anywhere from 1% to 10%. The existing operating budget already includes a government subsidy of €69 million (27%), so to make the existing service free would require an additional €191m to the subsidy for the running total of €260 million. But let’s assume the number of buses is increased by 27% from 1,100 to 1,400, this would give a huge boost to the service in both its geographical coverage and frequency and allow new routes to be established. So taking the figure of €260m and adding 27% extra costs for the extra buses gives a total of €330m. Dividing by the greater Dublin population of 1 million, it gives €330 per person. This does NOT mean everyone would need to be taxed extra by this amount. No one can really give a true and precise cost because there would be so many interacting effects. It would be like trying to predict the effects of widespread internet access 10 years before it happened.
To put this €330m in perspective, the Irish health budget alone in 2018 was €15,300m which means for 2.1% of that cost, we could have had free public transport for about 1 million plus people in Dublin. The health benefit cost savings from it probably would have been greater than 2% when you take into account less accidents and chronic health from air pollution.
Back in 2007, Ireland in its then budget put aside €270m to pay for carbon emission penalities.13 By 2018 estimates for them had risen to €600m for 2020. Surely introducing free public transport would go some way to reduce the country's carbon emissions and thereby penalty cost. In 2017, the total for all greenhouse gas emissions was 60m tonnes of which transport accounts for 20% for a total of 12m tonnes.
The Hasselt free transport experiment may have been too small because while it was successful and popular it did not put much of a dent on reducing the number of commute to work car journeys. In a large city like Dublin at present the radial network is useless for inter suburban work commute trips and reforming it into a grid like structure (more on this later) would have a chance of making it an attractive and viable alternative than driving to work.
Assuming this was accomplished then if we now take into account the cost to insure and tax a car and get a service done once a year, then for those households currently with 2 cars, the extra car would certainly become redundant under a free travel scheme and the savings that could be made by getting rid of these overhead costs would easily add up to more than €1,000 a year. Until an useful and successful free transport system is running for a few years, people are unlikely to get rid of their cars altogether and will at least hold onto one. In other words the release of capital allocated to private car ownership would not be released over night but within a few years probably would. Again the savings would be enormous. Right wing politicians –the same ones who favour large corporations like Apple paying basically no tax (which the EU ruled they should pay the Irish govt. €13,000m in tax they were let off by it), like to talk about reducing tax to put money back in your pocket. Well introducing free transport could certainly do it. Most people have cars to solve their transport problems. If they can be solved in other ways then they won’t need them. Why else are there so many car adverts –because they are trying to convince us we actually want these things. We don’t. We want solutions to transport.
The Direct Benefits and Savings
For Hasselt the result was it saved millions on not having to build extra road infrastructure and this has allowed it to reduce city taxes overall so when you start adding in these benefits and many others the cost just gets cheaper and cheaper.
The benefits and savings are many. There are all the obvious ones and then the not so obvious ones and again referring to the case of Hasselt, it seems that the return of city civic life with people back on the streets and squares was the most unexpected and the most rewarding. It brought back the sense of human scale and made it pleasant again to live, work and visit the city centre making it a place where people wanted to hangout and meet up. When you can just hop on a bus for free, it becomes so much easier to meet up with friends and do things. Suddenly the whole city is within your domain.
In some parts of the world, where there is huge opiate problem because people are depressed and live in non walkable cities where all sense of community has vanished, a return to real human interaction might well be part of the antidote.
On an operational level, one of the non-obvious benefits is the cost savings by not having to collect fares and all the associated administration, ticketing and sales. Even getting on the bus is easier because there is no fumbling with coins or tickets, making for faster loading time or put another way, time spent stopped. It’s also safer, because drivers can concentrate on driving and do not have to think about fares or carry out money transactions with passengers.
There are other indirect benefits such as; with people spending less on petrol they have more financial resources for other things. Expenditure on fuel represents a net flow of money out of the country, so it can only improve the balance of payments. As total mileage is reduced, so too does the total number of accidents. It is not widely recognised that accidents impose a significant drain on resources. Estimates for road accidents range from 2% to 3% of GDP due to costs through medical care, loss of work and productivity and various other knock on effects. In developing countries, a serious accident causing death or permanent incapacitation can result in the loss of the main earner for a family with the resultant effect of plunging them straight into abject poverty. In the West what tends to happen is that insurance pay outs are large in order to make it possible to continue existence in these expensive places. That leads to higher insurance premiums which results in the collective burden of cost on the population.
In the case of Hasselt, the experience was that the number of road accidents and consequently road deaths decreased about 80% following the introduction of free public transport. This resulted in significant savings to the health system and emergency services. The savings to the health budget alone more than offset the cost of providing free public transport. And as anyone who has lost someone in an accident knows, terrible grief and pain. For example, in 2013 there were 1.24 million traffic accidents deaths globally according to the World Health Organisation.
That is slightly more than the number killed by terrorist related attacks by a wide margin, but considerably less than the number killed in humanitarian bombing campaigns to bring democracy to far off countries led by the most car dependent countries in the world.
Another significant factor associated with mass automobile use that was realized through research and monitoring during the late 80s and 90s is the levels in the urban atmosphere of tiny dust particles called PM10 particles. In the UK alone, it was estimated by World Health Organisation (WHO) that these particles, mostly caused by combustion, were and still are responsible for at least 12,500 deaths a year due to the range of respiratory problems and other disorders they cause. However recent research for Ireland which has a population approximately 14 times smaller than the UK, gives a death count of around 2,500 per year in Ireland, which therefore suggests the real figure for the UK is probably closer to 30,000 than 12,500. These body counts can be reduced by less cars. Therefore the global number of deaths due to this type of cause is probably far higher than the number killed in road accidents, thereby increasing the total body count further. But hey they are not on the balance sheet so none of it gets counted or matters at least in official discussions about car policy.
A further saving is in the cost to the environment. There are over 1,000 million cars in existence and when you consider all the metal, plastic, oils, paints, fabrics, tyres, glass, rubber, used tyres and so on –whether these cars are petrol/diesel or electric, the quantity is enormous. Now think that the life span of cars is getting shorter –not longer and these are generally all replaced every 15 years, the impacts to environment, wildlife and people in the mining and processing of these materials is huge. On the disposal side, the toxic waste dumps are equally devastating. Some might argue or think that cars are recycled. Sadly much is not. If through free transport worldwide that car count was reduced to say 500 million, then that would at least halve the problem thereby reducing the pressure. This all goes to show it is not just about a climate problem, it can be a solution to multiple important issues.
Yet another positive consideration is on tourism and travel in general. Imagine that you are taking a holiday somewhere, anywhere and you have decided to go (by rail) to London, Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Munich, Zurich, Rome, Barcelona, Sydney, Tokyo, Mumbai, Bangkok, Mexico, Seattle, Chicago, Toronto, or any other interesting place and when you get there you discover they have what you already have in your own home town – free public transport. Suddenly the benefits multiply in ways you never think of. This is the stuff of dreams where humanity moves to the next level of maturity and gets its act together. What this actually represents is an increase in wealth for all of humanity. Its a bit like email or mobile phones; if you are the only one using it or owning it, its no use, but when everyone is using it, it increases its utility. Likewise being able to travel freely in any major town or city in the world would enormously increase the scope for sociability for everyone, and this would be so even under the circumstances where we begin to make the first serious efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions
Imagining Free Public Transport Globally
The motorcar is pretty much engrained in our wasteful way of life because it grew up, first in America with the expansion of the suburbs. It helped enable the structure of suburban which led to the development of big shopping malls and wasteful driving. Long ago when you went to the local store it might have been on foot, now that is replaced by hundreds of millions of people driving a few miles each at least once a week, often more, in addition to their daily work commute. On the flip side, compact inner parts of cities, like New York, London, Tokyo, Paris etc where living density is high, finding a place to park a car is problematic and it is quite easy to get by without a car. Free transport would be perfect in those sorts of locations.
So we can see the very physical structure of a public transport system depends on the urban environment. Traditionally many transport networks are radial with everything focused on passing through the centre and does not map well to work commutes. To deal with the outer suburban parts of cities, the transport network needs to be more grid like, so that you can get anywhere easily taking a much shorter route. For a grid, it is vital that the switch over to other bus lines as you cross the grid is seamless and without delay. This means frequent service is ultra important and delays needs to be kept to a minimum. It would also make sense to ensure it was easy to get to the places where people generally drive –i.e. the big box stores, although maybe internet shopping is beginning to chip away at them.
The public transport network does not have to follow old patterns and styles and can introduce services like local feeder buses to high speed, high capacity backbone hubs. The whole point is to get you from A to B rather than the older model which tended to get you to somewhere in the city centre. As the system gets betters, then over time the restructuring of cities can occur and the public transport system should aim as much as it can, to give as much versatility as did the car for most of your journeys. The system could be constantly refined through the use of frequency mapping that tracks where people are going and makes small adjustments to the network over time to optimize for that.
Assuming for a moment, this was achieved in one large city, then there is no reason it could not be replicated with local modifications in cities all over the world. It would be transformative. Imagine no matter what major town or city that you travelled to in the world, you could either downloaded an App or check the network map at the nearest transport point and just hop on a bus or tram and go anywhere in the city with ease and efficiency, using it as often as you like. It would free up so much. Combine this with things like the now popular and widespread city bike schemes, these would help link up the final parts of journeys. With the reduced traffic, it would be possible to pedestrianize more parts of the cities and introduce much more cycling infrastructure. It is well known from experience especially in places like the Netherlands, as you introduce cycling infrastructure and make it safer, there is a huge increase in people cycling.
It is likely that widespread free public transport would encourage more people to take intercity trains and could reduce the need for short haul flights, since they effectively directly interconnect with transport systems in the heart of most cities. If flying is to be used, it makes more sense to use it when other options are not really viable and that would favour longer distances rather than short city hops.
In some ways there is no need to stop at making transport free in the cities and why not extend it to intercity (land based travel). That is debateable for the moment, but the bulk of the people and the journeys are actually within the cities so it makes sense to tackle them first and the objectives are not just about reducing emissions and associated pollution and health problems, but to reduce congestion and actually enable one to travel on average within the city quicker than people on average do today and also to make this transport facility available to all. Reducing total expenditure by a given country on fuel could also be added to the list of objectives. We hardly all want to collectively use more fuel just for the sake of it. Only the oil companies want that.
China’s doesn’t really do suburbs in the US/European sense and while once largely rural, in the last three decades hundreds of millions have moved to cities and live in densely populated tower blocks. The density in Chinese cities is perfect for public transport. However the number of cars has soared in China and it is probably because they are simply trying to emulate the West when in fact there is no need. With a stroke of the pen, the Communist Party could introduce free public transport and in one single go, change the entire trajectory of the country to a more sustainable footing which they simply have to do anyhow in the long run. They would greatly solve their emissions problems and the worry of energy dependency by reducing it and the famous chronic pollution could be tackled in a major way. China has very significant pollution problems. Staying on their current path can only make it worse.
City Structure: Now, in the Past and the Future
For centuries towns and cities were largely walkable and people centric places and their structure reflected that in terms of their layout with a maze of streets, alleyways creating shortcuts, market squares, public spaces all inter connecting the city core together in interesting non-linear ways which happened to give more character to a place.
If you look at any town or city today particularly in Europe they all have an old tightly woven inner core and are then surrounded by concentric urban circles with each later one being more car dependent than the previous. See for example the Google Earth image of Milan, Brno, Czech Republic, or even Hasselt itself. In some cities the car culture, over time has completely taken over and gutted the old city centres. In the US, the older cities on the East Coast have some residual element of this European model, but the bulk of growth and expansion in the US, took off at the same time the car took off and with the result that the structure of most US towns and cities reflect this influence of Car Utopia. Los Angeles and Houston are two very good examples. As a consequence most US towns and cities are awful and characterless places devoid of life, everywhere looks the same and it is quickly becoming evident that not only are they not very functional, but they are becoming a huge liability because of ongoing unsustainable energy and resource use. Indeed the sprawling relatively low density of cities in the US pose quite a challenge to any form of public transport system, precisely because they are spread out and any return on transport investment will be problematic. The current car centric transport system is largely bankrupt as we push up against the limits to growth. It certainly won’t be around in a 1,000 years whereas the great cities of the world are far older than that.
It is important to step back and consider the span of time of the last few hundred years or so. In that time most of the main capital cities of the world were already well established by then and managed to function for centuries without the car! It is only natural that we should look the same distance into the future for all our cities and towns and to question whether the current car centric, socially excluding form of living will continue, can continue or would even be desirable. The answer is probably no.
It’s a reasonable bet to say that most people's vision would hope for something a lot better and definitely more progressive especially since an underlying and widespread view is that somehow humanity's lot is one of general improvement and progress according to the narrative of progress. The actual progress will cease if we destroy the place and mentally destroy ourselves by living in soulless places and ceasing any form of community. Humans are deep down social creatures and need to be immersed in real communities for their own mental happiness. Online communities are not a viable substitute as most people have come to realize. The environment you live in has to foster communities and car centric ones do not. It is a simple as fish need to live in water. Humans need to live in places where they meet other people and not just see them distantly through car windows.
Therefore an actual desirable modern city of the future and this does not exclude the slow transformation of your own city over say the next 20 years, would have an overlay of free public transport reaching every corner –that is used, so that traffic is considerably reduced overall so that more of the existing road infrastructure is switched over to obviously public transport whether bus, tram or rail but also to bicycle arteries and more pedestrianised streets around urban centres. Perhaps even some reasonable fraction of the excessive amount of space devoted to car parks is converted to real parks or housing or something else.
Consider how today we waste vast areas of land to car transport. Compare the width of a single track railway –probably a few meters to the width of a standard motorway with 2 lanes and a hard shoulder for each direction which is at least 10 times wider and yet they both probably have similar capacity to move people and goods. One is highly efficient in land use and fuel use and the other is highly inefficient in the same categories. It is not exactly progress despite we been led to believe it is. Likewise regular streets in “modern” cities are much wider because they are built to allow car travel in both directions and in many cases parking on both sides. So percentage wise it is a certainty that cities today devote a much higher percentage of their total area to “transport” than cities prior to cars. That is just wasteful. Imagine if our oxygen transport system –i.e. our blood system took up 5 times more space in us that it does. It wouldn’t be very elegant and would no doubt impose all sorts of constraints on our abilities. Well we are constrained by car centric cities and do not even realize it. Go to cities in Netherlands or Switzerland which have really good public transport or the inner part of some old medieval city and one will get some kind of inkling to it.
It should be clear then that the only real obstacle to bringing in free public transport are the political will and the strength to face up to the opponents of such a scheme. On a straight monetary level the numbers look right, and for all the other reasons the justifications to do it are even more compelling. At the end of the day each town and city will only do it because it is of immediate benefit to them.
The total energy required for such a system will always be far less than one where every journey is done separately in a car. With the car, we are in a sense creating the overheads of the vehicle and the engine for every person. Since a bus or tram can be used by 40 to 100 people and then the same bus or tram used by a different set of people a little while later, we are therefore reducing the transport overheads by a factor well in excess of 100. Looked at this way the amount of mining for metals and other minerals is greatly reduced. If everyone had an electric car, would there be enough lithium in the world to build the batteries? And if they were powered by wind power, how many turbines would that be? Is there even time, resources or capital to do this? And would we want to despoil the landscape even more?
Clearly making public transport the central means of transport drastically reduces all these demands because it means the scale of the energy problem and simultaneously environmental problem is smaller the less energy and resources you need. Besides do people really think that they will be driving their kids to school in 200 years time and themselves to work? Not only will this car future not come to pass, but its a complete unimaginative and regressive vision and everyone knows it.
References and Links
1a. Arctic Sea Ice Shatters All Previous Record Lows