Only a few weeks ago in December last decade, we reported on Kansas City becoming the first major US city in 30 years to make public transport free. 
Hot on the heels of that development, the New York Times just published a story about the city of Lawrence in Massachusetts trialing a free service for 3 of its main bus lines for the next two years. But with a population of only about 80,000 people, Lawrence is just a small town. The real prize is over in Worcester City, the second-largest city in Massachusetts after Boston, where the city council this month supported plans to examine a free public transport policy in detail .
As such, we decided it might be an opportune time to revisit this issue in a bit more depth. At the end of my coverage on the Kansas City announcement, I expressed some cautionary optimism about the positive, symbolic power of making public transport free as a way to champion issues such as equity and accessible mobility as a right. But free public transport does not automatically equate to good public transport, which is just as important for a range of social and environmental objectives.
But what does the evidence from research actually have to say about free public transport trials?
A 2013 peer-reviewed paper  from the Institute of Transport Economics (TOI) in Norway concluded that free public transport schemes generally offer poor goal achievement in economic, social and environmental aspects, and at high cost. The findings from looking at a number of schemes suggested that modal shifts from cars were marginal, with most of the shift to public transport coming from walking – meaning that congestion relief and emissions reduction were minimal. The paper also found that social equity goals can be met more effectively and at lower cost with targeted measures, for example providing free or discounted travel to selected disadvantaged groups. However, one area where the paper suggested there may be a role for free schemes is during off-peak periods, or for promotional purposes such as during the launch of new routes and services. And of course, where the cost of operating a ticketing and control system exceeds ticket revenues.
More recently, a 2016 published study in the journal Transportation  looked specifically at the case study of Tallin, which has had free public transport for local residents since 2012. The study found that the modal shift from car to public transport (share of car use decreased by 5%) was accompanied by an undesired shift from walking to public transport and an increase in car traffic due to much broader driving and shopping trends. The study was also unable to find evidence that employment opportunities improved as a result of the policy. In general, it seems to echo the findings from the TOI paper about modal shift from car use being marginal, and that social benefits may be more effectively realized through specific targeted measures. However, it did also show that amongst users of public transport, satisfaction rates improved meaningfully.
The efficacy of any transport policy is, of course, more complex than what we can properly cover here. But the evidence at hand does at the very least suggest that free public transport schemes will not be a silver bullet. Price is only ever one part of the equation to a well-functioning transport system. However, as interest grows around concepts such as universal basic income, it will likely have spillover effects into other areas as well, including transport.
It may be that free transport is not the perfect policy solution, but it could very well be a potent political one. It’s much easier, after all, to argue that mobility is a fundamental right if the solution you are proposing is to make it free. If that’s the case, the question is whether (despite all its flaws) free public transport should nonetheless be embraced by sustainable mobility practitioners as a tip-of-the-spear kind of policy to shift us away from the car-centric model of thinking.
Written by Bobby Chen, RISE Viktoria.
1. 2020-01-14. Should Public Transit Be Free? More Cities Say, Why Not?
2. 2019-12-19. Free Public Transport? Yes We Kansas!
3. 2020-01-08. Worcester Considering Fare-Free Bus System