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FREE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION 

Damien Kacza

Introduction:

Transport and especially public transport is at the core of Smart Growth movement theories. In this presentation, I will talk about some ideas to extend public transport, and to stop the all-car society, which is a major cause of global warming. 
 

    1. Free public transport

For many users the problem of public transport is that it is expensive, often insufficient and not convenient.  

If we make a comparison between costs and benefits of public transport and cars, benefits of cars would certainly be higher, because of the convenience, of the feeling of freedom and low costs.  

If we want to reverse this trend, a solution would be free public transport. There is a French association called RATP (for: network for the abolition of charged transport) which lobbies for such an idea in the Paris area, following examples of various cities in France like Châteauroux, Compiègne or Vitré and in Belgium like Hasselt, which I will detail later. 
 

1. What would be the impact of free public transport? 

First, it might change the habits of people who take their car because the cost of public transport is too high for them. For instance, people who have a long ride between their place of work and their home, or people with low incomes.     

The free nature of this public utility can also be mind-changing, making people aware of its importance, in terms of environment and common city life.    

2. Now we can wonder if this is a realistic solution? 

Some will claim that if public transport is free, it could not be financed. First, you have to know that only 30% of the total cost of Parisian public transport comes from tickets’ sales. What remains is financed by state tax and corporation tax. Besides, those 30% hardly cover the cost of tickets’ sales, distribution and control. So free public transport would be totally possible, without bankrupting transport firms.     

Another argument against it would be that it is unfair to finance public transport only by state tax, because not everybody uses it. But this is also true for roads. Only a minority of people in Paris has a car, yet everybody pays tax to build and maintain roads. So why should it be different for public transport?   
 

3. An example: Hasselt in Belgium 

The city of Hasselt in Belgium, 70 000 inhabitants, has set up a free public transport network since 1997. The urban lines are free for everybody, the regional bus lines are free only for the citizens of Hasselt.

At the same time, the bus network was significantly improved, frequencies were increased, and new lines were installed. Two new shuttle buses were provided, one linking the railway station with the heart of the city, the other driving around the city.  

    • What are the results?

The measure seems to be a great success. The use of public transport has risen dramatically. After a year of activity, the number of passengers increased by 870%, and 23% of the new bus passengers were former car drivers. That’s a positive point.

But we don’t know if these increases can be attributed to the free transit or to the increase in frequencies and number of lines.  
 

So the challenge of free public transport is to reduce its cost and to make it more beneficial than car.

Another way to do this is to charge the use of car in cities, with the help of tolls or congestion charges.   
 

    1. Congestion charge

 

Urban tolls and congestion charges are current issues that are debated worldwide, and I will detail later the famous example of London.  

1. What are the goals?

The first goal is the same as free public transport: to make car more costly than public transport.

Another goal could also be to reduce congestion inside cities boundaries, and as a result to reduce pollution and make city life more pleasant.  

2. What are the limits?

Urban tolls can produce discrimination inside cities, between rich and poor people.

For instance, this tax is a flat-rate tax, and it falls more heavily on poor drivers than the rich. So charging everybody equally may be seen as unfair.

A way for the government to deflect this criticism would be to create a progressive tax calculated by incomes.  

3. The example of London

The London congestion charge is a fee for motorists entering the Central London area. A payment of £8 is required each day when a chargeable vehicle enters the congestion charge zone.

The aims of the charge are to reduce congestion and provide investment in public transport.

How does it work? Around the central London Area, CCTV cameras record vehicles entering and exiting the zone. They use an Automatic number plate recognition technology. And drivers must pay the charge the day they cross the boundary, and they may pay on the Web, by SMS, in shops, or by phone.  

    • What are the results?

After one year of service, a report showed that on average the number of cars entering the central zone was 30% less than the previous year.

60% of the people who drop their cars chose public transport, and 20% car-sharing or bicycles.

Congestion was down around 26% in comparison with the pre charge period.

The profit of the charge is around 150£ millions per year, which are totally dedicated to public transportation networks.

So it is a great success, in terms of decreased congestion and increased use of public transport.

But it has had negative effect on business and trade inside the central area. 
 

There are many realistic ways to stop the all-car society and to increase public transportation networks. This is only a matter of political will and choice.
 

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