Why you shouldn’t need a ticket to ride: free bus travel means climate-friendly transport

All aboard: If we can change urban transport and travel, we can go a long way to avoiding catastrophic climate change. Official statistics out this week reveal the Department for Transport (DfT) is failing to get to grips with the climate crisis: yet again transport is the largest source of climate pollution in the UK, accounting for over a third of annual emissions. There’s also been massive media interest in Friends of the Earth saying that it’s time for free buses.

There is a double benefit to bold solutions: the changes needed to cut greenhouse gas emission from transport would also help to reduce problems like air quality and obesity. They’d make our cities and towns more liveable — for people and nature.

To identify the boldest policies needed to dramatically cut emissions from transport while making everyone’s lives better in urban areas, Friends of the Earth commissioned research from think-tank Transport for Quality of Life. The findings show the need for government to focus on traffic reduction and adopt bold proposals: such as free bus travel for under 30s.

When the DfT tries to show it’s taking climate change seriously, they like to talk about electric vehicles. But our new research reveals that a switch to electric vehicles just isn’t enough — we have to get traffic volumes down. It shows that the level of reduction needed by 2030 will be at least 20% — this could be higher, depending on the speed of the switch to electric vehicles and how fast the electricity powering them comes from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels.

Ever notice how people say they are stuck in traffic, and no-one ever says “oh no I am the traffic”, causing others to be late, too? We have to re-wire how we think and behave, and free bus travel is a great kick-start.

Free bus travel is actually really sensible. Free at first for the under 30s, then widened to all, is one of six key proposals we want government to adopt, to improve urban life and crucially, cut carbon. We think that free bus travel is an idea whose time has well and truly arrived.

Free bus travel already a reality

You can already travel by bus for free in around 100 towns and cities worldwide, including more than 30 in the USA and 20 in France, as well as in Poland, Sweden, Estonia, and Australia.

In the USA, free public transport is typically in small towns, tourism areas, or

university towns. Costs are met through local sales taxes, payroll taxes,

parking fees, visitor charges or student tuition fees.

How about closer to home? In France, most of the places that offer fare-free public transport are also small, with populations under 45,000. But there are eight medium-sized areas, with populations between 70,000 and 200,000 too. The biggest to date, Dunkerque, introduced free buses in September 2018. Simultaneously, Dunkerque’s bus network is being redesigned; more people have a bus service close to their home, and service frequencies are better.

One reason French towns can contemplate free local public transport is that a payroll levy already meets a high proportion of cost: in Dunkerque, around 90% of costs were already met by this levy before the start of free public transport.

The largest city in the world to have made its public transport (buses and trams) free is Tallinn, Estonia, pop: 440,000. Tallinn has profited! The €12m loss of fares income to its municipal public transport operator was more than offset by a €14m increase in revenues, more people moved to the city, increasing its tax-base. Genius!

In summer 2019, Luxembourg (pop 600,000) may become the first country in the world to make all public transport fare-free, according to the recently-elected coalition government.

At home, free local bus services wouldn’t work under the current deregulated privatised regime. But it would be possible with the other changes set out in the report’s policy proposals. These include better regulation, so local authorities can plan their bus network as a whole; powers to establish municipal bus companies, so that all profits are reinvested; and powers to raise funds from local taxation.

And we already offer free bus travel to the over 65s, eligible veterans, police officers, and transport workers so making bus travel free to the under 30s extends an existing scheme.

The cost of free bus travel

Probably around £3 billion a year. Huge, but it’s a fraction of spend on roads, or HS2, which we can all agree isn’t going well.

The cash is there, it’s prioritisation — schemes that protect public health and improve the environment are too often side-lined.

The problem is government cuts which are devastating vital bus services. Instead of improving the affordability and availability of buses, the DfT has overseen a 75% rise in fares over the last 15 years, and over 3,300 services have been reduced or removed since 2010 in England and Wales.

Three times more journeys are made by bus than train. Buses are the main means of transport for the car-less quarter of the population. As brilliant bus campaigners at the Campaign for Better Transport tirelessly say, buses link thousands to jobs, schools and shops, every hour, every day that they run. Buses represent a lifeline — for people and planet.

Friends of the Earth wants to see a transport system based around people and increased walking and cycling, not more money sunk into cars and roads. Free bus travel is an eye-catching, socially just policy that should take priority. With the impacts of climate destabilisation increasingly headline news, there is every reason why 2019 should be the year that government transforms transport and travel. We need to do this to get to grips with the climate crisis and to meet our Paris Agreement commitments to limit global temperature rises, and as a bonus it will make us healthier and happier too.

Read more in our report: Transforming public transport; Regulation, spending and free buses for the under 30s (pdf).

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