But the rush to free or heavily discounted tickets can have the opposite effect. In Germany it is first long weekend in the 9-euro-per-month tickets led to overcrowding, service disruptions and thousands of hours of overtime for staff. In Spain, Muñoz Nieto warns that if train frequencies are not increased, services will become overcrowded; plus, making one mode free and not others could draw passengers away from buses or metro services.
It costs money to boost services when you lower fares – that has to come from somewhere. In Spain, the free tickets will be paid out of one windfall tax on energy companies and banks, which the government believes will be worth 7 billion euros over two years. “Subsidizing trains is phenomenally expensive, but it has to be done if you want to get a lot of people in and out of cities to work,” says Paul Chatterton, professor of urban futures at the University of Leeds.
And mass transit systems around the world are already subsidized to some extent by public funds. In France, fares make up as little as 10 percent of the public transport budget. Luxembourg could easily make train free because a two-hour ticket costs only 2 euros and fares only pull in 30 million euros in revenue out of a 1 billion euro budget. But two-thirds of Transport for London’s budget is from fares, meaning central government would have a bigger gap to make up if it were to make all public transport in the capital free.
Transit systems that rely heavily on fares for funding came under enormous pressure during the pandemic, with many networks still struggling as commuters shift to hybrid work. An empty office on a Monday, for example, also means many empty commuter trains. “All funding models are based on this huge demand for commuter travel, which has been stable for 50 years,” Mcarthur says. “But then the pandemic came and that model fell apart.”
An alternative to free-for-all fares is targeted discounts that offer free or low-cost tickets to students, young people, seniors and those on benefits, which is already a common practice. Instead of subsidizing transport costs for those who can afford it, free passes could be given to people with lower incomes or in regions where public transport is available but unpopular. Another intermediate step is to charge a cheap flat rate, as Germany has done this summer. “People would still appreciate the service, but you’re also generating some revenue,” says Chatterton.
Free fares may not get everyone out of cars, but will convert some journeys, benefiting everyone in terms of reducing carbon and improving local air quality – and even helping drivers by calming traffic. Free fares won’t lift low-income people out of poverty, but will keep money in their pockets and ensure everyone can travel when they need to. Dropping fares has a cost, but there are savings to be had from not investing in expensive ticketing systems and wider logistical and societal benefits.
But cost figures and ridership statistics aside, there’s another way to look at it: Public transport should be considered a human rightalongside access to health and education. It is necessary to live in a city, says Mcarthur. “Public transport is an extremely efficient way of getting people around,” she says. “Buses and trains are not only efficient for people who use them, but also for people who don’t.”