Why Don't We Have Free Public Transit?

On July 1, Estonia rolled out free public transit in vast swaths of the country—the first large-scale attempt of its kind—to help ease travel between rural Estonia and the capital, Tallinn.

This experiments comes after Tallinn successfully instituted its own municipal free-transit scheme. Since 2013, Tallinn has paid for its free public transportation through government subsidies, higher parking fees, and taxes. Because free transit in Tallinn is contingent on residency, 32,000 Estonians registered as citizens—which gave the city a deeper tax pool to dive in to.

“Everywhere I know that free public transit has been implemented, people are happy with it,” Allan Alaküla, head of the Tallinn European Union Office and a champion of Tallinn’s free public transit initiative, told me in an email. “I have noticed only one ultimate and universal precondition: the service quality of public transit has to be at least maintained, but [ideally] improved. Otherwise free public transit fails.”

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Free public transit has emerged globally in recent years as a presumed panacea for car-clogged streets and air pollution. It’s a popular assumption—but it’s wrong, said Oded Cats, an assistant professor in the Department of Transport and Planning and a co-leader of the Smart Public Transport Lab at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In Tallinn free public transit didn’t reduce car usage; instead it replaced walking as a form of short-haul transportation.

“We don’t have any empirical grounds to expect [reduced car usage] to happen, based on the Tallinn experience. There is a lot of research which has been devoted to the question of ‘how can we make drivers shift into public transport,’ and reducing the cost of public transit is not a good way of achieving that,” he said.

Instead, he continued, increasing the cost of using a car is what makes people abandon their cars and opt for alternative transit in higher numbers. He pointed to anti-car measures such as higher parking fees, congestion pricing, and fuel taxes as primary ways to accomplish that.

So, is free transit a pipe dream?

The answer depends on where you are and your reasons for doing it.

In Paris, a transit experiment that started June 1 gives low-income seniors and disabled people a free monthly transit pass, to see whether transit there should be made free across the board. As Emmanuel Grégoire, deputy mayor of Paris, told me in a phone interview, Paris wants to know if free transit can reduce car usage and pollution, as well as improve citizens’ mobility and contribute to lower-income individuals’ social safety net, and therefore their quality of life. Paris currently has subsidies to cover about 70 percent of its transit costs, according to Grégoire.

In the US, many public transit agencies receive even higher subsidies than their European counterparts, noted Cats—meaning cities wouldn’t lose a huge amount of revenue by making transit universally free. Agencies could also save between two and five percent of their operational costs by eliminating ticket machines and agents’ jobs.

The remaining losses have to be made up somehow, either through private-sector partnerships or through higher taxation. Higher taxation is a dangerous game to play, however, because it depends on whoever’s in power at the moment, and could be easily slashed in budget cuts. Cats suggested that collecting fares from at least some users—higher-income earners and tourists, for example—would at least give transit agencies a small reserve of funding to help pad a change in political will.

Free public transit feels like a good idea, but it’s not a silver bullet. To have environmental benefits, it would need to be paired with aggressive anti-car measures. That said, it can yield greater social benefits when done right—and maybe that’s good enough.