Will cities of the future have free public transport?

Nothing quite reduces Christmas cheer like a New Year’s price increase on public transport systems across the UK. But while fares increase in the UK, for some cities there will never be a fare increase because public transport is completely free. But will this become the trend of the future for cities around the world?

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Cities like Tallinn have introduced cost-free journeys for citizens. Other systems, like a handful in the San Francisco Bay Area have welcomed free shuttles to ferry inhabitants and visitors around the area for free. And these don’t come with a massive burden on the taxpayer either.

In Emeryville, a city in San Francisco’s Bay Area and a commuter hub, local commercial property owners have funded a service called the Emeryville Go-Round. Unlike its northern neighbour Berkeley and distant cousin Palo Alto and Silicon Valley, Emeryville has not yet become the bustling hub of technological innovation and creativity that it has the potential to be. But, by investing in a reliable shuttle service which takes people from the BART (The rapid transit metro system in San Francisco) to business parks and shopping centre, it is well on the way. The area is beginning to attract new businesses and the housing market is expanding.  

Increasing business and property contracts are one reason why cities are wooing cost-free transport, but no-fare journeys also contribute towards citywide targets to cut carbon emissions and congestion. Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, did something no city that large had done before and introduced free transport for all citizens on buses and trains. Why make this decision that would surely cost the council more money? At an estimated cost of 12 million euros a year, the venture in Tallinn was not a cheap one. 

The city predicted that not only would it cut carbon emissions significantly but free buses and trains would also allow poorer people to access interviews and jobs in other parts of the city. 

“Free transit is more doable in cities where systems are already highly subsidized, as Tallinn’s was” and “usage grew most in economically struggling areas of the city”, reflected Sulev Vedler, deputy editor of Postimees, an Estonian newspaper, writing in Citiscope. It hasn’t yet cut down on the number of people driving cars, but it has cut down on the number of people walking! It has only been operating in Tallinn since 2012, so perhaps the council’s predictions of 20% more uptake from drivers on the public buses will soon be realized.

In Mariehamn, the capital of the Finnish owned Aland Islands, the city bus is free. A free bus encourages citizens to leave their cars at home, improving air quality, congestion and the speed of journey, commented the council. The system has been successful and the council has reported that numbers of users have increased enormously since it was introduced in 2000. 

Another successful Bay Area initiative has been the Marguerite Shuttle which services Stanford and Palo Alto. This has been partly funded by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District Transportation Fund for Clean Air, which just goes to show how towns and cities are really beginning to consider their commitment to reduce carbon emissions, especially in polluted west coast cities like San Francisco. The Marguerite is free, open to all members of the public, has bike racks, and also runs an evening and weekend service. The service links up with Caltrain too, which has made it an indispensable part of the commute for some local residents.

Concern about providing free public transport to major cities is widespread: the idea has many critics. Some Tallinn residents are concerned about homeless people using the service as an “all day bed”. The same concern was voiced in Emeryville when I chatted to people on the bus. Yet there, aside from a few people who looked a little unhinged, everyone on the Emeryville Go-round was using it to get from home to MacArthur BART station which would whisk them into work downtown. “If it wasn’t for the Go-Round I wouldn’t be able to live in Emeryville. It’s a nice place, you get more space for your money here, and there are great facilities which I wouldn’t be able to take advantage of if it wasn’t for the Go-Round,” said Rubiha Masidjana, an Emeryville resident.

So what is the future of free public transport? In London Boris bikes are sometimes free for the whole weekend which sees a surge in usage. And there’s no doubt that in London, so much of our monthly salary goes on transport that we’d notice a real difference. But at the cost of what else? Rubbish collection? Reduced road quality? Sadly, the money cannot be plucked from thin air, so unless taxes increase wildly, in London anyway, Boris is unlikely to find an extra £11.4bn to cover the cost of the tube.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail image from gettyimages.

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