But the rush for free or deeply discounted tickets can have the opposite effect. In Germany, the first long weekend of 9 euros per month tickets have resulted in overcrowding, service disruptions and thousands of overtime hours for staff. In Spain, Muñoz Nieto warns that if train frequency does not increase, services will become overcrowded; Also, making one mode free and not the others could drive passengers away from bus or metro services.
Improving services when lowering fares costs money, which has to come from somewhere. In Spain, free tickets will be paid for on a exceptional tax on energy companies and banks which, according to the government, will reach 7 billion euros over two years. “Subsidizing trains is hugely expensive, but it needs to be done if you want to get a lot of people in and out for work,” says Paul Chatterton, professor of urban future at the University of Leeds.
And mass transit systems around the world are already subsidized to some degree with public funds. In France, fares represent only 10% of public transport budgets. Luxembourg could easily make trains free as a two-hour ticket costs just 2 euros, with fares bringing in only 30 million euros in revenue out of a budget of 1 billion euros. But two-thirds of Transport for London’s budget comes from fares, meaning central government would have a bigger gap to fill if it wanted to make all public transport in the capital free.
Transit systems that rely heavily on fares for funding have been strained during the pandemic, with many networks still struggling as commuters transition to hybrid work. An empty office on a Monday, for example, also means a lot of empty commuter trains. “All of the funding models have been predicated on this huge demand for commuting, which has been flat for 50 years,” Mcarthur said. “But then the pandemic came and that model fell apart.”
An alternative to free for all is the targeted discount, offering free or cheap passes to students, young people, seniors and recipients, already a common practice. Rather than subsidizing transport costs for those who can afford it, free passes could be given to people on low incomes or in areas where public transport is available but unpopular. Another intermediate step is to charge a cheap flat rate, as Germany did this summer. “People would still appreciate the service, but you’re also generating revenue,” Chatterton says.
Free fares may not get everyone out of cars, but will convert some journeys, which will benefit everyone in terms of reducing carbon emissions and improving local air quality, and even help drivers by calming traffic. Free fares will not lift low-income people out of poverty, but will keep money in their pockets and allow everyone to travel when they need it. Abandoning fares comes at a cost, but there are savings to be made by not investing in expensive ticketing systems and wider logistical and societal benefits.
But setting aside cost figures and ridership statistics, there is another way to look at it: public transport should be considered a human right, as well as access to health and education. It’s necessary for city life, says Mcarthur. “Public transport is an extremely efficient way to get around,” she says. “Buses and trains are not only efficient for the people who use them, but also for those who don’t.”