Head-to-head: No, public transport should not be free

Free public transport sounds ideal, but would it actually tempt drivers out of their cars? Lydia Peeters, Mobility and Public Works Minister of Flanders, makes the argument against it
Ghent, Belgium | Photo: Alamy

By Lydia Peeters

Lydia Peeters is Mobility and Public Works Minister of Flanders

03 Nov 2022

Free public transport. Some people put this forward as the panacea for realising the big switch that needs to occur in our travel behaviour. Public transport would gain tremendous popularity so that people would stop using their cars, traffic jams would decrease and, as a result, our CO2 emissions from transport would go down.

But would that really be the case?

Let us talk briefly about the effect of free public transport on car travel. Nobody doubts that if public transport were free, more people would take the bus or tram. Would people, however, swap their cars en masse for public transport?

Experts and researchers in Finland have examined the potential impact of free public transport on the use of passenger cars, among other things. The head of Tampere University’s Transport Research Centre Verne, Heikki Liimatainen, has said that making public transport free in itself is not a solution if not accompanied by relevant measures such as broader urban development goals.

According to Liimatainen, “Free public transport increases the number of passengers, and can even raise them significantly, but the shift mainly takes place among pedestrians and cyclists, and hardly takes drivers from their cars.”

Experiments with free public transit confirm this, such as in Hasselt, the Belgian town that halted its initiative in 2016, and the Estonian capital of Tallinn.

So, what can we do? Almost all experts are of the same opinion: it is more important to improve the quality of public transport than to make it completely free. That is why Flanders is pushing for better quality, more sustainable and more customer-friendly public transport via the new cooperation agreement with Flanders’ public transport company, De Lijn.

We must strive to provide quality public transport in which customers are centre stage. During this term of office, we are also phasing in the transition from basic mobility to basic accessibility, with the train, tram and bus as established modes of transport. On busy lines, we deploy faster and more frequent bus and tram services and in places where there is less demand for public transport, we use flex transport.

In addition, the transport company must put in extra efforts to increase its reliability and work on a well-designed network, without blind spots. Transport poverty must be avoided at all times.

Almost all experts are of the same opinion: it is more important to improve the quality of public transport than to make it completely free

The Flemish government is also committed to improving infrastructure, including the renewal of tram tracks and the realisation of free bus lanes where, ultimately, the bus will quite literally overtake the car. In addition, we are committed to building accessible stops because being mobile is essential to building and living a quality life.

I believe in this type of investment. It is necessary to achieve a high-performing and, above all, reliable public transport system that provides a genuine alternative to the car. Only then will choosing public transport become a no-brainer in people’s travel behaviour.

Of course, we must take care to keep public transport affordable. In Flanders, for example, we take into account specific target groups for whom price is an obstacle. Many travellers and commuters are offered reduced bus and tram fares. Students, in particular, often use public transport at a very reduced rate, and there are also social tariffs for those who need them.

So, free public transport is not a panacea. But investing in a high-quality, efficient and reliable public transport system is.