Commuter Kate: Should We Make Public Transit Free?

Published: August 3, 2018

People movement is a hot topic, and the transportation world is certainly due for a shakeup. With the introduction of premium but affordable door-to-door services like ride-sharing being added to the transportation mix over the past few years, for some people, the idea of riding public transit is no longer a thing.  

A recent study has shown that ride-sharing apps, even when in “pool” mode, can increase road congestion and pollution. In an effort to reduce traffic and be more environmentally conscious, we need to get people back onto public transit. One way to do this is to make public transit free.

This concept of free public transit has made the news recently with countries all over the world, even car-loving ones like Germany, experimenting with free public transit. This comes at a time where there is pressure from entities like the European Union for countries to take control of their air pollution levels.

A month ago, Estonia led the way for free public transit across the whole country. Estonia has always been a forward thinker in this domain, having offered free public transport to local residents in its capital city Tallinn since 2013. Wales in the UK offers free bus service on the weekends for everyone, and France is experimenting with a different approach to provide free public transit to low-income seniors and disabled riders who may not own or be able to drive a car.

How can these countries afford to do this? Through government subsidies, higher parking fees, congestion charges and, of course, taxes. By removing the need for tickets, a meaningful amount also can be saved on infrastructure and labor costs such as ticket machines, turnstiles, ticketing staff and ticket inspectors.

Universal free transit may make a dent in a city’s coffers, but additional revenue can be made by still charging tourists or higher income users. For example, in San Francisco, local riders can use their transit pass, while tourists pay a higher fee for rides on the historic Cable Cars.

Commuter Kate San Francisco Cable Car free transit

I believe access to free public transportation is a great concept, but in order for it to work in the long term, it needs the following:

The cost of private car ownership to be increased through higher road and fuel taxes, as well as congestion and parking fees. These taxes should then be transparently put directly back into the mass transit system.

Government backing, so that they invest in the service to keep it clean, modern, and environmentally friendly (e.g. investment into an electric fleet) and subsidize the first and last mile with ride-sharing or shuttle services to eliminate the need for people to drive to the nearest station.

Transit agencies need to provide a service that is reliable with features like real-time arrivals, and with routes that are aligned to the needs of the people.  

Moovit’s Smart Mobility Suite of products is helping with the third point, using anonymous data from its #1 app to help governments and city planners manage their fleets in the most efficient and useful way for the people using it.  

There’s much to consider when designing a free public transit system and I’m hopeful that the program works well in Estonia so that this concept can be rolled out in other cities or countries.

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