In the United States, once the home of car culture, cities are experimenting with free public transport following successful international experiments. In the French capital, the Paris mayor is removing 72% of car parking spaces on the city’s streets. In Birmingham in the United Kingdom, inspired by the Belgian city of Ghent, drivers are being encouraged to move out of their cars and to instead use public transport, walk and cycle. Motivated by a desire to make cities work, get rid of toxic air and tackle the climate emergency, a rapid change is underway, bringing into the question the role of the car and promoting public transport that is available for all.

As cities across the world face life threatening levels of air pollution and the chronic illnesses associated with it, authorities are looking for ways to keep our air clean. Transport is one of the big polluters, generating the air-borne particles that do us harm. Transporting people in more efficient, cleaner modes of transport is therefore key and even the strongest of advocates for the car are looking at new forms of transport. Recent innovations suggest that one key answer is already with us; if public transport were free, would more people use it, reducing carbon emissions and car use on our streets?

Public transport already exists in most cities and switching modes of mobility is a kind of behaviour change that can happen surprisingly fast. Around 100 cities internationally currently run fare-free transit; most of these are in Europe, but even in the US – home of the motor car – cities are showing an increasing amount of interest.

Kansas City (Missouri) and Olympia (Washington State), both declared that their buses would become fare-free this year, sparking a  wider conversation on the role public transit plays in economic development, mitigating climate change, reducing road congestion, and addressing income inequality. The city of Worcester, Massachusetts’ second-largest city, expressed strong support for waiving bus fares – a move that would cost between $2 million and $3 million a year in fares not collected. Fare-free transit is a policy recommendation of Michelle Wu, a Boston City Council member who is expected by many to run for mayor in 2021. She argues that instead of charging people an increasing amount every few years, the benefits of maintaining a transit system that drives the economy and helps residents at all income levels to get to their jobs, while keeping commuters off the roads, means it should be supported in a different way and shared fairly by taxpayers.

In the UK, the city of Birmingham – home to the famous “spaghetti junction” motorway intersection – has announced plans to entice people out of cars and onto bikes and buses. Currently, 25% of car journeys are one mile or less. If officials get their way, the city will be split into zones and rather than driving direct, motorists will have to use the ring road for all zone-to-zone journeys. This plan was influenced by a zone-centred traffic circulation plan designed by the Belgian city of Ghent in 2017, which prevented drivers from making short journeys within the city by car. Instead, they were inconvenienced by having to travel out to the ringroad and back into a neighbouring destination. They soon found walking and cycling much faster. Motor vehicles used to make up 55% of trips within Ghent, but that number has fallen to 27%.

Birmingham and the French capital, Paris, both aim to increase the room for cyclists and walkers by taking it away from car owners (see our traffic evaporation case study) who have traditionally been privileged by planners. The Paris mayor, Anne Hidalgo, is basing her re-election campaign on ensuring that “you can find everything you need within 15 minutes from home.” She wants to see the return of the more self-sufficient neighbourhood, and aims to make all roads safe for cyclists by 2024. In Birmingham, businesses will be incentivised to remove parking spaces through the introduction of an annual workplace parking levy, and the city will build 12,800 new homes on former car parks. Freight deliveries will be restricted to out-of-hours, and there will be a blanket 20mph speed limit across the city’s local roads.

Wider relevance

As city officials cast about for big ideas to combat rising social inequality and reduce carbon emissions, free mass transit offers a practical, fast option for change. It’s also relatively cheap; the mayor of Lawrence, Massachusetts, was surprised to find his regional transit authority collected just $225,000 on three of the city’s most-used bus lines. He was able to offset this level of cost from the city’s surplus cash reserves. In larger cities where public transport is more widely used, losses may be greater but are still manageable. In Boston, the cost was estimated at somewhere between $36-109 million, which equates to raising fuel tax by 2 – 3.5 cents, in a country where gasoline prices are about half the global average (at the time of writing around $0.74c per litre compared with a global average of $1.47 and, for example $1.84 in oil producing Norway).

Free mass transit also seems to be good for the local economy, despite fears to the contrary. Filip Watteeuw, deputy mayor of Ghent, said that since the provision of free public transport, there “has been a 17% increase in restaurant and bar startups, and the number of empty shops has been arrested”. Ghent’s plan cost just €4m (£3.4m) to implement. By comparison it costs an estimated £20m-£30m to build just one mile of motorway. The city also has significantly cleaner air – nitrogen oxide levels have dropped by 20% since 2017 – and there is an unexpected benefit of noise reduction: “Instead of car noise,” says Filip Watteeuw, deputy mayor, “people can now hear each other talking and children laughing.”

Unlike many major infrastructure projects, making public transport free is easy to implement in stages if, for example, authorities are unsure as to how it will impact particular communities. In Salt Lake City in the US, public transport was free for one day a week as an experiment – Fare Free Friday. The mayor’s office was quoted as saying that 3 tonnes of vehicle pollution and 200 tonnes of greenhouse gases were saved by the increased public transit ridership on a single day alone. They also estimated the Free Fare Friday removed 17,560 cars from Utah’s road the same day. In Malaysia, GO KL City Bus is a free service for the Kuala Lumpur Central Business District running every 5 minutes during peak hours and 15 minutes during off-peak hours to reduce traffic entering the city centre.

Context and background

Air pollution is one of the world’s leading risk factors for premature death, attributed to 5 million deaths each year and 9% of deaths globally. It is also one of the leading risk factors in the broader burden of diseases, with understanding growing of its role in widening range of conditions from circulatory problems to mental health. A recent report from the Centre for Cities in the UK reveals that 42% of nitrous oxide pollution in the UK’s cities is from road transport and 100% of the roads monitored in 19 cities were above the World Health Organisation (WHO) guideline levels for annual PM2.5 – the tiny particles that penetrate deep inside our lungs. A recent report from London suggested that the sore throat suffered by many and called “London throat” could be partially caused by tiny metallic particles from worn-out brake pads.

Remembrance ceremony at the first Smog Day
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Transport is also one of the least tackled areas in our attempts to reduce carbon emissions. The last decade has seen enormous strides in the amount of renewable energy produced (see our story on the rise of solar energy) but only a few places have taken advantage of this to improve public transport (see our story of change about electric buses). The US Center for Climate and Energy Solutions says that transport is their greatest cause of carbon emissions. It suggests that Americans can save more than $9,738 per year by taking public transport instead of driving. However, access is a problem for many, and is the key to reducing emissions – 45% of Americans have no access to public transportation. American households that produce the least amount of carbon emissions are located near a bus or rail line. The people in those households drive an average of 4,400 fewer miles annually compared to similar households with no access to public transit.

The issues of health and city design are not the only reasons behind moves toward free mass transit. Poverty in inner city areas, with long commutes on older buses is the norm for many at the bottom of society. Free transport can make an immediate and disproportionate difference to the money in these people’s pockets at a time when many developed societies are seeing the income equality gap grow. Experiments in the US cities of Denver and Austin, were initially viewed as unsuccessful because there was little evidence that they removed cars from the road; new riders tended to be poor people who did not own cars, according to a 2012 review by the National Academies Press. But they were successful in a different way; they increased ridership right away, with rises of between 20 and 60 percent in the first few months, especially among millennials and “urban progressives”, who see unequal mobility as a key factor in social and racial inequality.

Enabling factors

There is widespread agreement that urban growth is making car use in cities unsustainable, and that car use needs to be reduced to tackle the health emergency of toxic air as well as the climate emergency. For example, it is estimated that growth in the UK city of Birmingham’s population will result in 1.2 million additional daily trips across the highway network by 2031 and this is not an issue that can be solved by electric cars. People’s attitudes to different aspects of transport, as revealed in the second wave of the UK’s National Travel Attitudes Study (NTAS) published in January 2020, revealed that health is a major driving force, with 74% agreeing that “everyone should reduce how much they use their motor vehicles in urban areas like cities or towns, for the sake of public health”. The wider environment is also a worry for many – 72% were concerned about damages to the countryside from building roads. The main barrier is cost: personal motor vehicles are seen as the second most affordable mode of transport with 72% finding it affordable; with the most affordable being seen as bus, minibus or coach (73%); and the least affordable being rail (59%).

Car sales are tumbling as people look for alternatives, and rural populations – most dependent on the car – continue to fall. Figures for January to September 2019 showed car sales lower in all major car markets in the world with the exception of Brazil where sales increased by 8% and Japan where new passenger vehicle registrations increased by 2.2%. The Russian market contracted by around 2%, the US and European markets showed small contraction in sales, the Chinese new car market contracted by 12% (or two million cars), and the Indian market was down by a sharp 16%. New car registrations in the UK fell to their lowest level since 2013, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). It was the third consecutive year of decline, and the SMMT expects that trend to continue in 2020.

Global urbanisation is forcing nations around the world to invest in transport infrastructure as roads becoming increasingly congested and gridlocked traffic becomes the norm. There are currently 139 metro projects and 162 light rail transit projects underway internationally, with the highest number of projects in Europe, followed by Asia, the Americas, Australasia and Africa. One of the highly successful urban transportation systems is TransMilenio Project in Bogota, Colombia, with a bus rapid transit system, bicycle paths, improved pedestrian facilities, and significant restrictions on private car use (see our story about Bogota). Integrated transport like this brings impressive reductions in air pollution, roadway congestion and traffic accidents. A combination of re-thinking public space and public transport also led to a remarkable transformation and the reduction of crime in the city of Medellin. It will be interesting to see how many of these new systems decide to offer free travel to their customers.

Scope and evidence

  • Thanks to new infrastructure, bicycle use in the city is rising but from a pitiful low of just 1% of all trips.
  • Birmingham city council in the UK wants this to rise to 5% by 2023, but if it successfully introduces its circulation plan it might be surprised by far greater success.
  • Ghent’s plan had imagined a cycling modal share of 35% by 2030, up from 22% in 2016. Instead, after an explosive 60% rise in cycle use, the target was reached last year, 13 years earlier than planned for.