Radical Wales: Free Public Transport

(Title Image: via Wikipedia)

This is the first in an intermittent series of articles looking at some potential so-called “radical” policies an independent Wales could adopt….or, in some cases, could even be adopted under devolution.

I’m not suggesting every single policy proposal in this series needs to be adopted, maybe only one or two depending on the policy objective, the impact on quality of life and the affordability. The closest thing I’ve done to this so far are posts on legalising recreational drugs and prostitution.

I start off with public transport being universally free at the point of use.

What do we mean by “public transport”?

Public transport is any form of transport which isn’t operated by the person using it, runs to a set schedule and can be used by anyone as long as they meet certain conditions to access it.

So public transport includes buses (and trolleybuses), trains, light rail, airlines, ferries, emerging forms such as personal rapid transit, or location-specific modes like public escalators, people-movers and funicular railways.

There are some modes you can discount from this exercise straight away. Airlines and ferries operate across international borders and are expensive to operate (plus low-cost air travel already offers what you could call a good deal), personal rapid transit hasn’t taken off yet and many location-specific modes may be free to use in the first place.

You can probably discount services aimed at tourists like private/volunteer owned heritage railways too.

So that leaves buses, trains and other forms of rail such as light-rail and metro systems to be considered further for universal, free at the point of use public transport.

Free Public Transport: Case Studies

The Estonian capital, Tallinn, probably has the most famous free public transport network in the world and is set to be joined by Luxembourg later in 2019 (Pic: Citiscope)

Tallinn, Estonia – Following a referendum, registered residents of the city (who pay a small fee for a smartcard), the under-7s and over-65s have been able to travel for free on all buses, trams and trolleybuses in the city since January 2013. Everyone else has to pay. In 2016, The Guardian reported that the system actually makes a profit of €20million (£18million) a year – though this wasn’t explained further. Since July 2018, the Estonian Government granted local councils the power to roll out their own free public transport systems, backed by central government funds.

Hasselt, Flanders – Between 1997 and 2013 the city made bus travel free, resulting in a reported 13 times increase in bus use in 2006 (4.6million journeys) compared to 1997 (360,000 journeys). However, since 2013 the city (re)introduced a flat fare of 60 cents per journey and restricted free travel to the under-19s due to budget cuts.

Luxembourg – Fares on all bus, rail and tram services in Luxembourg are to be phased out from summer 2019. Fares are already heavily subsidised with people paying around €2 for two hours travel, which effectively covers all journeys due to the country’s small size.

Wales – Yes, this has been piloted in Wales (and I’m not just talking about more famous examples like free bus passes for the over-65s). In 2009-10, Cardiff Council ran a free bus in a loop around the city centre, but it was withdrawn due to low passenger figures (reportedly just 1,000 or so a week). In the summer of 2017, the Welsh Government introduced free travel at weekends on the long-distance TrawsCymru bus network. It’s proven successful with an additional 133,391 passengers using services between July 2017-March 2018 (a 66% increase).

Top 3 Arguments For Free Public Transport


A road space comparison between a bendy bus and cars. (Pic: via steemit.com)

Free means free; a big boost for economic equality and social mobility – One of the reasons people might make a conscious decision to drive over choosing  public transport is because they “think” it’s free at the point of use as they don’t have to go through a barrier or buy a ticket – they’re only confronted with the cost when buying petrol, paying tolls, insurance or road tax. Free public transport would mean turning up and going; no faffing about with cards, tickets or cash. No need for enforcement for fare evasion. You get on a bus or a train and that’s the end of it. That would increase opportunities for work, socialising, study and general travel/wellbeing if one of the major barriers (cost of commuting) was eliminated. It may also put less pressure on development in green belts if people know they can travel in from outside for nothing.

Positive impact on traffic and the environment – This is an obvious one. A single bus takes maybe 40 cars off the road; a train or tram even more. While a diesel bus or train is likely to produce quite a bit of pollution by itself, per head it’ll be significantly less than road traffic. This would all have a knock positive impact on the economy (due to less congestion) as well as public health and the environment (reductions in air pollution, reduced demand for new roads, possible increase in walking and cycling from public transport stops).

It’s a more efficient use of resources – Public transport is already heavily subsidised, so why not go full hog? In 2014-15 (pdf), the Welsh Government subsidised rail services to the tune of around £170million a year, yet Arriva Trains Wales only made back £119million from passengers and £93million from franchise receipts. Bus services are currently run on a commercial basis and the Public Policy Institute reported in 2014 (pdf) that bus companies made £22million profit from subsidies – subsidies which have gradually been cut year on year with declines in passenger numbers and routes along with them. Free bus passes are estimated to cost £60million a year.

Top 3 Arguments Against Free Public Transport


(Pic: Wales Online)

Lack of capacity – Make something free and people might use it too much. I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice buses tend to take up a large amount of space and can be more dangerous to cyclists and pedestrians than cars. Providing free public transport would also, presumably, have to come with an increase in the number of bus and rail services and increased service frequency to meet demand (maybe as close as every 4 minutes or so during peak times along busy routes). The trouble is that – when it comes to heavy rail at least – it’s impossible to do that without significant investment in new infrastructure. Even in the case of buses and light-rail, they’re still likely to be held up at pinch points and cause accidents if the investment isn’t made, the money for which is supposed to come in part from fares.

The cost – This would be the big one; could we afford it? Any income from passengers would have to be met from general taxation or somewhere else. Let’s look at a few beermat calculations for free bus travel:

In 2016-17, around 4,600 people worked for bus companies in Wales, of which 3,525 were drivers. If the number of drivers increased by, for argument’s sake, 20% to cover an expanded service (and get people out of their cars) that would mean an additional 705 drivers and maybe an extra 1,000 staff overall (5,600). The salary costs alone, based on a £22,000-a-year average for a bus driver, would be at least £124million a year.

You would also have to add the ongoing maintenance costs, the capital cost of new buses to fulfill an expanded peak-time service (at least £120-150,000 a bus), refurbishments, depreciation, fuel and things like insurance and pensions. Universal free bus travel would easily cost something in the region of £250million-300million a year by itself; you would probably have to at least double that if you included free rail travel overheads.

Someone smarter than me will have to drill down into the figures to work out the true cost of universal free public transport but my educated guess would be at least £650million a year, which would have to either come from general taxation or budget adjustments (taking it from health, welfare, road budgets, education etc.). However, that doesn’t count subsidies already given to bus and rail companies, which would bring the overall net subsidy figure down to maybe an additional £400-450million or so a year.

People may resent having to pay for something they don’t use – so, ironically, this could prove politically unpopular. It could even have a negative impact on the economy if car sales fell, it impacts other forms of transport like taxis or people become less mobile by being wholly reliant on public transport.

Would it really get people out of their cars? – It’s not as if free public transport would completely stop people driving, particularly in rural areas or between places poorly served by public transport. One of the side-effects of free public transport revealed in some studies is that instead of attracting drivers, it attracts people who would otherwise have walked or cycled, either out of necessity (i.e. not being able to afford a bus) or choice. Price isn’t really why people drive a car – it’s journey reliability and journey times; the quickest journey between Bridgend and Cardiff Bay by train and/or bus is about 45-50 minutes including multiple changes; you can drive it in about 25 minutes point-to-point. Low-carbon alternatives to overhead electrification for rail and light-rail are still yet to be properly developed, while electric and hydrogen buses are a novelty at the moment.

Alternatives to universal free public transport

Would a flat fare system or Netflix-style subscription service be a better alternative to free public transport? (Pic: londonist.com)

Capped and flat fares – Setting fares so you only pay either a certain amount per single trip regardless of distance (flat fares) or you only pay a maximum amount per day for an unlimited number of journeys (capped fares). The former system is used on bus services in Bristol (£2) and London (£1.50), while most bus operators have day tickets or season tickets which allow unlimited use additional subsidy could be provided so they cost less. Transport for London also has a system where you pay no more than £7 a day for travelling in and around central London. An all-Wales zonal fares system could be introduced for long and medium-distance travel.

A “Netflix” model – People pay a monthly subscription (for argument’s sake £40-a-month) for unlimited use of bus and rail in Wales. 500,000 people signing up on those terms for a full year would raise £240million; it could also be offered as an employment perk to encourage employers to charge for car parking permits if they’re sited close to a public transport hub/bus route. Fares would continue to be applied as normal for single/one-off journeys. This type of system has been mentioned previously for youth concessionary fares on buses in Wales.

Selective free public transport – This is what the Welsh Government are already doing with TrawsCymru; making public transport free at certain times, particularly when it’s not very economical to run in the first place. So, for example, you could make bus and rail travel free on weekends/Sundays or during off-peak hours (though the latter may be difficult to police) and combine it with capped fares during the peak.

How could Wales introduce free public transport?

Free rail travel is unrealistic due to the ongoing capital and revenue costs associated with it – Wales isn’t Luxembourg, our rail network is far more extensive – and there are also cross-border issues to deal with.

Capped or heavily-subsidised rail fares (for argument’s sake, nobody pays more than £20 to travel long-distance by rail and shorter journeys are capped at £2-3 per journey regardless of distance) may be more appropriate in order to balance income with expenditure, control demand and encourage modal shift by reducing the cost of rail travel generally.

Universal free bus travel might be more feasible. The number of bus journeys is falling, while subsidies are being cut by councils and the Welsh Government leading to route and service cutbacks. Also, as we’ve seen recently with news on MyTravelPass, sometimes you can cut fares and people still won’t use buses. The industry needs a boost and our roads need cars removed from them – all perfect reasons to seriously consider universal free bus travel.

Buses also have a broader reach than rail and might be a more convenient alternative to the car due to the larger number of stops and destinations.

In order to fully implement it, bus services would either have to be nationalised – whether as locally-owned and operated bus companies or a national bus company – or, commercial bus companies would be awarded grants to cover the cost of providing a free service subject to regulation by the Welsh Government/Traffic Commissioner (general standards of service, fit and proper person tests) and local authorities (routes, timetables and licensing).

As for revenue raising in light of free fares, there are a number of possibilities such as:

  • A hypothecated precept on council tax and business rates (particularly out-of-town businesses with large free car parks) set by a regional authority – perhaps subject to a referendum as in Tallinn.
  • Making private vehicles more expensive to use (road tolling, higher road tax, higher car parking fees) and using some of the money raised to fund free public transport.
  • Selling commercial advertising on buses (which many bus companies already do).
  • Charging for extras like wi-fi access, onboard entertainment or reserved/comfier seating.
  • Limiting free travel to registered full-time residents of Wales/Welsh citizens or charging an up-front administration fee for smartcards etc.

My personal preference would be some form of capped/fixed fare system on all public transport via a smartcard or contactless payment – simply to maintain an income stream for further ongoing investment. The latter might well be introduced in the next few years under the new rail franchise, the former will take some political will and additional funding.

What do you think? Should there be capped or fare free bus travel in Wales? Should it include rail too? Is free public transport too radical, unworkable and expensive? Are there any other ways to encourage public transport use that aren’t related to price?

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