Can free public transport save polluted cities?

Sunilchandra Dal
Saturday, 29 December 2018

According to AFP, Germany too is planning free transport in some cities. “We are considering public transport free of charge to reduce the number of private cars,” three German government ministers wrote in their recent letter to the EU. 

Air pollution due to vehicular traffic is a health hazard in cities across the world. To counter this, one solution planned by some cities in Europe in 2019 is free public transport. However, some experts doubt whether the plan will succeed. 

On paper, the plan looks good. Public transport is offered for free. As more and more people start using public transport, the number of private vehicles on the roads goes down. The aim is to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. 

Luxembourg has announced its plan to offer free public transport from the summer of 2019, making it apparently the first country in the world to do so. Germany is also likely to implement such measures in some of its cities. 

Luxembourg is a small country in western Europe. Its capital, Luxembourg City has a population of around 110,000. The European Court of Justice, Secretariat of the European Parliament and the European Investment Bank are located in this city. 

Luxembourg has the highest car-to-person rate in the European Union: 662 cars for every 1,000 people. According to the New York Times, nearly 2,00,000 people from France, Belgium, and Germany travel to Luxembourg for work every day. Interestingly, the average salary, which is just over 50,000 euros (or US $57,181 or Rs 39.9 lakh), is almost 40 per cent higher than in France. 

The government plans to overhaul tax breaks for commuters. According to The Guardian, other steps proposed include more restrictions on emissions from vehicle fleets like buses and taxis, low-emission zones and support for car-sharing schemes. The savings made on selling and controlling tickets could finance some of the cost of free travel. 

However, past attempts at free public transport have failed. According to the New York Times, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, introduced free mass transport for residents in 2013. A year later, usage grew by 14 per cent, but mostly pedestrians, not drivers, made the switch. 

According to Washington Post, when Paris was plagued by thick smog in 2014, authorities banned half of all cars and made public transport free. But the measures lasted only one week. Limited experiments with free public transport were eventually also stopped in Portland and Seattle. 

According to AFP, Germany too is planning free transport in some cities. “We are considering public transport free of charge to reduce the number of private cars,” three German government ministers wrote in their recent letter to the EU. 

According to the Washington Post, those plans would be costly, as many German transport companies get 50 per cent of their revenue through ticket sales. Instead, under the new scheme, the government would be expected to help shoulder the burden. 

Thus financial burden on the government seems to be the main hurdle in the long term for the success of the plan. Not only would the government have to pay the running costs, but as more commuters are attracted to public transport, it would have to be expanded. 

Public transport organisations would need to generate non-fare revenue. Yet the government would have to pay for public transport in all polluted cities and it is doubtful whether this is affordable, especially in India. 

Ultimately shifting to electric vehicles may be the only solution.

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