Public transport and how it’s run is something of a political football in Scotland. However, beyond nationalisation, what concrete policy ideas should the left be looking at? In her fifth Conter Manifesto column, Eve Livingston looks at the feasibility of universally free public transport
Public transport is often written off as the unsexy policy cousin of bigger ticket areas like health and social security, but it’s perhaps one of the most crucial to get right. Underpinning discussions of trains, trams and buses are after all questions about who’s able to travel to work, which communities can access public services, and how we tackle issues of pollution and congestion. These are discussions which have seen public transport debates take greater prominence around recent elections, with a host of new policies including Labour’s pledge to provide free bus travel to under 25s and the Conservatives promising (and so far not delivering) an extension to the 16-25 year old railcard.
What no mainstream party has yet been brave enough to propose outright is a fully free public transport system for all citizens. Perhaps that’s because, at first glance, it sounds vulnerable to all the attacks the right traditionally level at large-scale left-wing ideas: who will pay for it? Why benefit people who can pay instead of targeting support? How will we maintain infrastructure?
In actual fact, we don’t need to look too far afield to find at least some of the answers. Across Europe, a range of towns and cities have introduced free public transport in recent years in a variety of ways and to varying degrees of success. The most high-profile of these – and probably the largest in scale – is Estonia’s largest city and capital Tallinn, where public transport was made free to all residents in 2013 upon the purchase of a one-off travel card for around two euros.
Before diving into the results of Tallinn’s decision, it’s worth making explicit the reasons why free public transport is a policy idea the left should consider seriously. Perhaps the most obvious of these is a social justice issue: the cost of public transport currently can limit the movement of the less well off, restricting where they can find work or access services like healthcare and education. Removing these restrictions would not only make life easier for the disadvantaged and go a long way in reducing long-term poverty but could help the economy and labour market in general, with more people able to work and spend.
Another clear argument is around climate change and the environment, namely the challenge of how to reduce the number of cars on the roads and, in turn, the amount of pollution and noise in busy urban areas. A 2010 NASA study declared cars the single biggest contributor to climate change, while experts have recently warned as many as 1 in 3 children in the UK are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution on their way to school. Add to this the frequency of road deaths and injuries compared with those on public transport, and it seems clear that disincentivising car travel could have sizeable health and environmental benefits.
And there’s another benefit to the idea of free transport which is perhaps less visible, but crucial for the left: a challenge to the market-driven logic of current transport infrastructures and a reframing of public transport as a public right for common good rather than a paid-for service for those who can afford it. Travellers become citizens empowered to make choices and participate in their communities, rather than customers making constant calculations about the cost of a day out, a job interview, getting to nursery or surviving a commute. Access to community is democratised and the traditional power relations governing public transport are inverted.
And so to Tallinn (pictured below), where free public transport has largely proven itself to tackle these issues and more. Far from bankrupting the city, the transport system has generated around 20 million euros each year since it became free, mainly because its appeal was such that the population actually grew as new residents moved in to take advantage of the system. Because the infrastructure is funded by income taxes, the system literally ended up paying for itself and generating a profit to boot.
Similar is true of the French town Aubagne, which paid for a free transport system by increasing taxes and making operational savings on things like ticketing and cash management which were no longer necessary. In fact, research shows transport is generally not paid for by customers anyway, with ticketing making up only a small proportion of their costs: in Tallinn, customer tickets only accounted for 1/3 of funding before it was abolished, with the remainder already coming from government subsidies.
Usage amongst the unemployed and low income groups in Tallinn also increased, by 32% and 26% respectively. Crucially so did usage by middle and high income people, not only bringing together all tiers of society in public space, but also ensuring there was strong support for developing and maintaining infrastructure across demographics and among those who traditionally have more political and lobbying power.
Where results have been slightly less transformational is on the issue of the environment and car use: while public transport usage increased, this tended to be amongst those who had traditionally walked, cycled or just used it less rather than those with cars. The average car journey time actually increased as drivers turned to public transport for short, convenient journeys but ultimately still relied on cars for longer trips. Far from having any negative effects though, this highlights the need for policy proposals like this to come accompanied by a range of other ideas too, including those that specifically disincentivise driving.
This suite of proposals would also need to include the protection of transport workers such as ticket collectors – although it’s worth noting that in Aubagne and Tallinn, anecdotal evidence suggests many have largely welcomed the move, finding it has improved their working conditions and relationships with passengers. Dedicated efforts would also have to be made to ensure transport infrastructure was not left completely vulnerable to cuts or at the bottom of the pile for investment simply because it’s free to use.
Overall, though, the idea of free public transport at least starts an important conversation about whether people should really have to pay private providers through the nose to be able to fully participate in society. Operating free public transport in a way that’s sustainable and successful requires careful planning which accounts for the specificities of local economies and communities, but examples such as Aubagne and Tallinn show that it’s possible.
Capitalism might have trained us to think we don’t have an automatic right to some aspects of public life, but we don’t (yet) pay by the hour for sitting on a bench or slot a pound into a bin before it will let us use it. Decisions about taxation, privatisation and access ultimately come down to political will rather than some innate and unmoving feature of society. This is about radically reframing the current logic of transport – it’s beyond time it operated to improve citizens’ lives rather than businesses’ bottom lines.