Free public transport
Does it change our behaviour?
I joined Ealing Golf Club for three reasons. The greens are wonderful, there was a locker for my clubs and I could get there via the Central Line from Notting Hill. Then the pandemic arrived.
Once a new reality returned, I decided to rent an electric car, just for a month or two. Yes, the same one that I’m still enjoying a year later.
It’s become very convenient and lazy to dump my clubs in the boot. It means nothing ever gets forgotten anymore and I can slip on golf shoes quickly in the club’s car park, 5 minutes before I’m due on the first tee. Playing other courses, which I do regularly, means no unnecessary diversions to Ealing first to pick clubs up.
With 1,000 electric miles per month included in my agreement, I’ve been feeling obliged to use up the miles in an attempt to get my money’s worth, not that a round trip to Ealing will do much damage.
I’m getting a bit more help shortly as mileage allowances are being reduced to 750 with a small increase in the price to boot. The benefits of early adoption must now officially be over.
Travel to Ealing also became free from last July, when I became eligible for an Oyster, 60+ London travel card, offering me free travel in London on bus, tube and the new Elizabeth Line. I’ve decided it’s time to return to the good old ways, at least as far as getting to Ealing is concerned.
Downgrade to Oyster 60+
Just before I became eligible the 60+ Oyster and Freedom Pass was suspended from use before 09.00am weekdays. Over 1,000 Londoners contacted Age Concern to complain how this adversely effected their lives. Typically, they are lower income folk and include carers, volunteers and key workers, who need to be somewhere first thing.
Rather than remove the suspension, it appears that the plan now is to phase out the 60+ card and slowly raise the age of qualification. It’s under consultation, but if approved, a current 57 year old, could expect to wait until they’re 63.
Some cities and now Germany (almost) have taken the opposite view, making public transport free to all.
The German experiment
On 1 June, a €9-a-month ticket was launched for all city and regional transport. The tickets can be used anywhere in Germany until the end of August. The government hopes to boost the use of public transport and help consumers with the recent cost of living increases.
The scheme is not cheap, costing the government, €2.5bn to refund the transport companies and out of pocket season ticket holders.
What makes less sense is reducing German energy tax on petrol, 35.2 cents per litre, and diesel by 16.7 cents during the same period. Why not use the fuel revenue potentially saved, to offset the cost of their subsidised ticket experiment?
Critics of the scheme believe it will lead to overcrowded trains and trams, bicycles and prams being turned away on routes which are already popular. Only the summer will tell.
Free transport elsewhere?
Some cities in Europe already operate free public transport. Tallinn, Estonia’s capital introduced it as long ago as 2013. A public referendum was held with 75% of residents saying yes.
To qualify, people had to register as a resident of Tallinn, pop. 416,000 and pay €2 for a green card, to use the public transport network. Having a register of residents explains why the city claims to be making a profit of €20m a year. The municipality is able to claim a €1,000 share of every person’s income tax. A population which grew by 25,000 people in the first three years of operation. It also means less money for the places they’ve left behind.
A year after introduction, public transport use was up 14%, but car use had only declined by 5%. The conclusion after 3 years, was it hadn’t encouraged people to stop driving, they’d stopped walking. Trips on foot dropped by 40% as walkers jumped on buses instead. One encouragement was a significant increase in old, young and those on low income.
Despite these mixed results, Estonia decided that every county in 2018 could also introduce free public transport. Counties could opt out but they would risk missing out on additional funding from the national budget. The free-fare zone is expected to cover most of the country.
Dunkirk, northern France
In September 2018, Dunkirk, pop. 200,000, introduced free bus travel which has seen use rise 60% during the week, 120% at weekends. Its success is as much down to smart planning and investment.
A new bus network was introduced with 5 high-level service lines running in dedicated lanes for speed and efficiency. Monitored buses run every 10 minutes, stops are better signposted and placed in residential areas with destinations close to shopping and leisure activity. Not surprisingly, the French public have decided to leave their cars at home as a result.
Total investment for the project was €26.5m with the EU’s regional development fund contributing €11.5m.
The Welsh government has been experimenting with free bus travel. In 2017, they introduced free weekend travel for a year backed by a £1m budget. The increase in weekend travellers to the TrawsCymru T network was said to be a great success, but a quick look at their web site now, suggests that their public are having to pay again. The exception being if you’re over 60 or a Ukrainian immigrant living in Wales .
Lest we forget, Wales followed England, narrowly voting to leave the EU and with it anymore regional development funding.
Enjoy the journey
As Mrs H. reminds me, it’s important to enjoy the journey. But when that comes to getting somewhere, aren’t we conditioned to choose the most efficient route? The reason why the French in Dunkirk are leaving cars on their driveways is because there is an alternative which offers better value and more convenience.
Does that make the Flygskamers (flight shamers) of Sweden an exception? Most of us don’t care or more importantly can’t afford to care what happens to our climate unless a country/city changes the rules. To make positive environmental transport choices is the domain of the time and/or cash rich, which largely restricts it to the young and old.
Elias Bohun wanted to travel around South-East Asia after he finished school in Austria. He decided to travel overland to Hanoi with his girlfriend, travelling through Poland, Russia, Kazakhstan and China.
They slept on night trains, leaving their luggage in the station of their new destination, spending the day exploring before re-boarding their next overnight sleeper. It was a 16 day travel adventure. They also met more locals in their first two weeks, than the four-and-a-half months spent travelling around South East Asia, living in hostels full of tourists.
Many of us would prefer rail travel but cost is often the deciding factor. Take a Eurostar train to Paris and you use 90% less carbon, but it costs twice as much. You might be able to narrow the gap with some planning and an advanced ticket purchase.
Time for a trip to Woolwich Ferry on the Elizabeth Line and a half-price return by ferry to Westminster.