IN FEBRUARY of 2018 it was announced, that five German cities will be trialling free public transport as a way of combating the increasing problem of air pollution. The idea is that by providing free public transport, people will be encouraged to use this a means of getting around and as a result stop using their car. This will effectively reduce the number of vehicles on the road, thereby decreasing the amount of pollution and improving the air quality.
Free public transport isn’t a brand new concept and there are a number of cities around the world that have introduced free transport in a variety of ways, some as a totally free service and some as a service that is free during particular times of the day, or even as a short-term measure on days when air pollution is extremely high. Tallinn in Estonia is one of the most frequently cited examples of a totally free public transport system. In 2013 they started to provide completely free transport to residents of the city. If you were a tourist or visitor, you still need to pay for the service.
The public response to the Estonian scheme has been overwhelmingly positive, but the benefits that it has brought are a matter of debate. There is evidence to suggest there has been an increase in the number of people using the service and a reduction in the amount of traffic. However, traffic speeds have not changed in the city which indicates that people have not shifted away from driving their vehicles in any significant numbers.
Free public transport is democratic and fair
One explanation and potential criticism is that making public transport free doesn’t automatically lead to a decrease in car usage. Instead, journeys that may previously have been made on foot are now made using public transport. The service may be attracting new users, but ultimately they may not be the exact users the schemes are aiming to attract. A sound argument for free public transport is that it opens up the city to everyone, regardless of their economic situation. Low-income families, for example, will be better able to access the city. A free service is democratic and fair.
However, one of the key aims of free public transport is to reduce the number of cars on the road not to simply increase the number of users of the service. Free public transport alone might not be enough to encourage drivers to stop using their cars. For the more affluent, saving money by using the train or bus isn’t a good enough reason to get them to stop using their car, or to sacrifice a certain level of convenience.
South Korea found that free public transport alone isn’t enough to encourage car users to opt out of driving. They introduced free public transport at peak times and on the worst days of smog as a way to combat the dangerous levels of air pollution in Seoul. The results showed that on the effect was only a slight increase of 2.1 percent (23,000 people) on the number of subway users and a slight decrease in traffic of 1.8 percent (2099 vehicles). Milan and Paris have also experimented with free public transport as a way to combat their dense inner city air problems, and both have produced similar results to Seoul.
A ban on diesel vehicles
Does this mean that free public transport is an idea that just won’t work, and that people will continue to use their cars regardless? The answer is both yes and no. Free public transport alone isn’t enough to entice drivers away from their cars in any significant numbers, but the option of free public transport is a key component in the process. Using a car in the city centre, for example, needs to be made more expensive. There could be a tax on using the inner roads, or a large increase in parking charges. Increasing charges and taxes is rarely a popular move, which is why offering free public transport as a viable alternative is so important.
Germany has recently made a similar move in this direction as part of an effort to improve air quality by tackling traffic. The highest administrative court in the country recently ruled that individual cities now have the right to ban diesel vehicles from their roads. It will be at the discretion of the cities as to how quickly a ban would be implemented and for which vehicles, but there’s a strong chance that banning diesel cars would lead to these drivers using free public transport instead.
This step from Germany is one in the right direction. A ban on certain vehicles combined with the introduction of free public transport could be the two pronged solution that is needed. Right now there are simply too many polluting cars on the roads, and until we see mass adoption of electric vehicles they are going to continue to be an environmental problem. If we want to improve air quality and reduce environmental pollution then we need to use both the carrot of free public transport and the stick of penalties for cars.
Further Reading and Resources
Planka.nu is a network of organizations campaigning for free public transportation in Sweden and Norway that was created in reaction to rising ticket prices in Stockholm. Planka.nu will pay the penalty fare if you are caught not buying a ticket and their name literally translates to “fare-dodge.now”.
American Public Transportation Association is “dedicated to supporting a multi-modal lifestyle that allows mobility to all Americans.”
Movimento Passe Livre is a Brazilian movement for free public transportation as a way to fight social exclusion.
MoonShadow Mobile provides “Analytics of Big Data for the Internet of Moving Things.” Using their DB4IoT™ database engine, they create big data visualization and mapping for things such as the number of public transit passengers or vehicle health.
Vugo predicts that all ride-hail services in the U.S. will be free in the next five years. They are working to provide free transportation via their in-car media platform in which revenue from advertisements will go towards providing a fare-free ride.
Smart Stripe is “a Constant Data Connection built directly into the road stripes and structures along the roadways and in urban environments.” Much of future public transportation will rely on connected technology and Smart Stripe offers a solution to potential network overloads.
Proterra makes zero-emission, battery-electric buses that help eliminate fossil fuel dependency and reduce costs.
Pantonium created a system “for managing fleets of vehicles used for people transportation. Helping move riders efficiently in an on-demand world.” Their goals are to maximize capacity in vehicles, increase service areas, and reduce the number of vehicles on the road.
Unu is working to change urban mobility. Their first product is an electric scooter, but they are continuing to work on designs making electromobility simple and affordable for everyone.
AdasWorks is a software toolkit fusing multiple car sensors, GPS and map data with computer vision in order to create advanced driver assistance.
NÜWIEL’s vision is to free cities from traffic congestion, noise and air pollution. They produce electric powered bicycle trailers for last mile delivery and urban lifestyle.
Tesloop offers city-to-city shared-car transportation services through its fleet of Tesla’s electric vehicles.
ImagineCargo delivers packages via bike-train-bike instead of truck-plane-truck.
MotionTag is a transport analytics tool for smartphone apps. It reliably tells you how, when and where your users are travelling.