Around the world, cities are the “ground zero” of inequality and unsustainability. The two largest cities in the United States, New York City and Los Angeles, are also the two most unequal cities, and one-third of the United Kingdom’s poorest 10% of families live in London. Meanwhile, two-thirds of the world’s energy and 70% of global carbon emissions are attributed to cities. This leads to the question of how the evolution of public policy, and urban design, can strategically combat these two growing issues. Around the world, cities are looking to mobility as part of the solution, and in particular, asking a simple question: what if public transport was free?
Today, approximately 100 cities around the world offer free public transport, with a heavy concentration in Europe. The future of transit, both from an operational and architectural standpoint, has generated a growing interest among architects and urbanists as of late, with ArchDaily last year noting a 206% increase in views of articles related to public transport versus 2018, along with a 143% increase in readership of articles related to mobility.
There are numerous reasons why access to public transport should be encouraged. For every $1 invested in public transport, around $4 of economic returns is generated, while a $10 million investment in public transport generates $30 million in increased business sales. People are also safer traveling on public transport, with accident risk reduced by 90% versus private transport. From an environmental perspective, public transport already saves the US 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline each year, and 37 million metric tons of carbon. As buses emit 20% less carbon monoxide and 25% fewer nitrogen oxides per passenger mile versus single-occupancy cars, public transport is also better for public health.
The advantages of increased public transport use are obvious, but the effects of making entire public systems free at the point of use are more contested. While studies, scenarios, and simulation models can provide limited indicators, the effects of free public transport are best seen in real-world actions by cities that have taken the brave step.
Europe is leading the way in free public transport. From March 1st of this year, Luxembourg will become the first country to make its system free for all citizens. Taking aim at long commutes and the country’s carbon footprint, the new move hopes to alleviate some of the worst traffic congestion in the world, with Luxembourg currently containing the largest number of cars per population in Europe. The move to make public transport free has been a phased process, with previous initiatives making the system free for people under 20, and subsidized for others. The government believes that making the system free will allow for savings on fare collection, policing, and administration.
France has also become a center for free public transport initiatives. As the country has pledged to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040, and ban their presence in Paris by the same year, access to public transport has taken on an added significance. Today, 23 French towns offer free public transport. The largest is Dunkirk, whose 257,000 residents benefit from a free bus system that has increased usage of the network by 60% on weekdays, and 100% on weekends. 48% of users say they leave their cars at home, while 5% have sold their cars entirely.
Paris is also in the process of lowering the financial burden of public transport. September 2019 saw new concessions rolled out across the Greater Paris region including free metro and bus travel for people under 11, including non-nationals, and free travel for people with disabilities under the age of 20. In addition, high school students between 14 and 18 will receive a 50% concession, as well as a free bike share account on the city’s Vélib scheme.
At the time of the announcement, Free University Brussels transport expert Wojciech Keblowshi noted that “Use among vulnerable groups – the unemployed, the elderly and youths who do not have a middle-class income – increased dramatically when fares are abolished. The city becomes much more available to them. They can look for jobs and take advantage of cultural activities and institutions. That argument is especially present in the French context.”
While Europe has become a role model for free public transport, cities in the US are also beginning to adopt similar measures. Last year, Kansas City announced that it would make its bus system free, setting aside $8 million to support a move aimed at tackling inequality concerns and grounding the city's efforts to fight the climate crisis. Olympia, Washington has also recently announced that they are following suit.
In the liberal state of Massachusetts, a number of towns and cities are examining and enacting free systems. As detailed by The New York Times, the state’s second-largest city of Worcester is considering waiving bus fares in a move expected to cost between $2 million and $3 million per year. Meanwhile, Lawrence MA, a city of approximately 80,000, began a two-year pilot program in September 2019 to abolish bus fares, leading to a 24% increase in the use of their system.
Boston is also examining the feasibility of such a system. President of the City Council, Kim Janey, sees the move as a key factor in addressing social and racial inequality, saying “think about who is using our buses: It’s black people, folks who live in communities where there are deep, deep concentrations of poverty.” Janey has proposed abolishing fares on key routes through low-income neighborhoods of the city.
However, the idea has not won unanimous backing in Boston. Mayor Marty Walsh has exhibited caution over the financial feasibility of the scheme, while MBTA Advisor Board deputy director Brian Kane, who oversees the system’s expenditures, was quoted by The New York Times as saying “there’s no such thing as free. Someone has to pay. Boston has the highest-paid bus drivers in the country. They’re not going to work for free. The fuelers, the mechanics — they’re not going to work for free.” He has argued that a free system would mean losing the $109 million generated by fares in 2019. Supporters of a free system dispute this, saying the system would cost $36 million and be paid for by a 2-cent rise in the city’s fuel tax. This month, the idea was endorsed by the editorial board of The Boston Globe.
As architects, urbanists, and designers, our focus on public transport is often founded on aesthetics and new concepts, such as the Hyperloop or Uber Skyports. However, the ways in which existing systems are administrated and funded by government should also be at the forefront of the debate. Changing how people access and use existing public transport can prove far more cost-effective and environmentally responsible than proposing radical transport alternatives that require the expenditure of new energy, materials, and finance. Those involved in the shaping of urban transport systems, be they architects, urbanists, or policymakers, must be prepared to be as bold and visionary with financial and economic infrastructures as they are with physical ones. The groundwork is already there.