Dozens of cities around the world already provide free public transport for their residents. Many other places should get on board, says Richard Webb
ROUND where I live, heady pronouncements of a green transport revolution spurred on by the coronavirus pandemic have vanished in puffs of exhaust. In the London suburbs, the promised step change in provision for cyclists and pedestrians has amounted to authorities blocking off a few roads, to the vocal opposition of some.
Many people seem to be voting with their feet – on the gas pedal. According to data analysed by the Environmental Defense Fund Europe, traffic congestion in outer London rebounded to above 2019 levels soon after the first lockdown as people shied away from buses and trains for fear of infection.
Those shifts look to be global – and permanent, too. A survey run for the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project revealed that, in Great Britain, 23 per cent of people expect to be using their cars more after the pandemic. In Australia and the US, already more car-dependent than the UK, the figures are over 40 per cent, despite high levels of concern about climate change expressed in the same survey. Meanwhile, the pandemic has driven a coach and horses through the finances of public transport operators.
These fundamental changes to the transport landscape demand a far-reaching rethink, in particular of our attitude to public transport. It has never been a money-maker. Post-covid-19, it will be even less so. The question is whether it ever should be.
Within the European Union, transport contributes some 27 per cent of overall carbon dioxide emissions, almost half of that from private car use. It is the only sector that has seen CO2 emissions rise over the past three decades, by over one-quarter.
Meanwhile, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reckons that, by 2060, air pollution will cause between 6 and 9 million premature deaths globally a year, and lop about 1 per cent off global GDP – around $2.6 trillion.
These huge “externalities” are insufficiently factored in to our thinking on transport. Wishing away the car isn’t an option. Paying for top-notch public transport, particularly in high-density urban areas, is.
Besides accessibility, the problem of public transport is its high marginal cost. Once the fixed costs of owning a car are paid, the marginal cost of using it is typically low. Public-transport fares calibrated purely on the costs of provision, rather than the wider environmental and public health costs of not using it, provide little incentive to consider alternatives.
Some cities are already thinking radically. Worldwide, more than 100 provide free transport for residents, among them Dunkirk in France, Tallinn in Estonia and a sprinkling in the US, as well as the entire country of Luxembourg.
A perhaps more sustainable model for larger cities is provided by Vienna, Austria. Since 2012, a pass giving unlimited access to public transport there has been available for a modest annual flat fee of €365 – a euro a day. Nearly half the city’s population of almost 2 million has one, and 38 per cent of all journeys are made by public transport – with walking pushing the car into third place, accounting for just 27 per cent of trips.
Vienna’s experience, now being eyed with envy by other European cities, shows how high-quality, affordable public transport provision can kick off a virtuous circle. Fewer cars on the road makes alternatives, including walking and cycling, more attractive, too. That improves health and quality of life and breaks down social barriers – socially disadvantaged groups are less likely to own a car and more likely to spend a higher proportion of their income on getting around.
Public transport is a public good, just like health and education are. The covid-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for enlightened authorities to start seeing it, and paying for it, that way.