In London, the legal limit for air pollution for the entire year was met just one month into 2018.
Rapid urbanisation is placing a growing strain on infrastructure in cities, and it’s an issue that is only going to worsen in the coming decades. According to research from Canadian demographers Daniel Hoornweg and Kevin Pope, an extreme potential urbanisation scenario could result in more than 120 cities globally with populations larger than 5m by 2050.
The ramifications of this change are particularly worrying when it comes to transport. High levels of emissions from cars on congested roads are creating serious air quality issues in key urban areas. In London, the legal limit for air pollution for the entire year was met just one month into 2018, exposing city dwellers to toxic air and health problems including heart failure and chronic lung disease.
In order to combat such dangerous levels of pollution, both local and national governments are exploring the potential of fare-free public transport (FFPT) as a means of encouraging people to leave their cars at home. The Estonian government has recently unveiled plans to roll out FFPT on buses across the entire country, having provided free rides on all public transport in Tallinn since 2013. The Mayor of Paris is considering similar action, while Germany is set to trial FFPT in order to meet EU air pollution targets.
In Tallinn, free transport led to a 40% decrease in the number of trips for which walking was the main mode of travel.
While the theoretical appeal of these schemes is obvious, with the financial incentive persuading people to leave their cars at home, their characterisation as the great white hope of public transport may be a little premature.
Take Tallinn as an example. A report assessing the impact of FFPT in Estonia’s capital city revealed that the majority of people who embraced the scheme were those who had previously walked from A to B, with a 40% decrease in the number of trips for which walking was the main mode of travel witnessed after the free initiative was implemented.
Heightened labour and maintenance costs mean FFPT schemes also place an increased financial strain on already-stretched city budgets. In Paris, it’s estimated that introducing city-wide free transport could cost the French capital an extra £5.3bn ($7bn, €6bn) annually – twice the current contribution that passengers make to services through tickets.
FFPT does have some upsides, however, most significantly in increasing accessibility of public transport for low-income passengers. But its positioning as a solution to cities’ environmental issues is yet to be realised.
A more effective strategy to encourage the use of public transport may be found in the small tweaks that add value to journeys.
In spite of this, a future in which FFPT schemes are able to make their desired environmental impact could soon come to pass, with automated bus services like those used by Helsinki’s Sohjoa project representing a way to make schemes more affordable. Potential also exists to increase the efficiency of services by designing them to be flexible and responsive to citizen demand, putting an end to under-used routes and unnecessary stops.
In the short term, a more effective strategy to encourage the use of public transport and help reduce the impact of city pollution on daily life may be found in the small tweaks that add value to journeys, such as making them a little more seamless through real-time travel updates, or more entertaining through the provision of free wi-fi on buses and subway systems. The latter also represents a promising opportunity to attract investment from brands looking to target consumers in those places in between.