In response to the twin social and climate crises, countries around Europe are experimenting with mobility polices involving free or heavily subsidised public transport. But how effective are these measures, and are they likely to lead to behavioural change in the long term? Transport policy expert Philipp Cerny looks at the potential and limits of free public.

Movement is one of the principal freedoms of the European Union. But the prevailing mobility policies underpinning this fundamental right have serious limitations in today’s Europe. An excessive focus on individual car ownership restricts how and where people can travel, especially with rising fuel prices amid a profound economic crisis, while the climate crisis calls for a broader rethink of mobility systems.

A growing number of Europeans are struggling economically. The cost of living crisis is affecting every aspect of people’s daily lives, from how they consume and socialise to how they work and get around. While working from home became the norm for many during the pandemic, this option was not open to everyone. Many workers – including tradespeople, as well as those in less secure and lower-paid jobs such as care workers and hospital staff – are dependent on transport to make a living.

According to Eurostat figures from 2018, just prior to the recent crises European households were spending a total of 1.1 trillion euros per year on transport – a sum equivalent to 7.2 per cent of the EU’s GDP. At 13.2 per cent of total expenditure, transport represented the EU’s second largest household spending category after housing (24 per cent), with third place occupied by food and non-alcoholic beverages (12.1 per cent). EU households’ transport expenditure is now set to rise even higher as a result of high inflation and the worsening energy crisis. Fuel prices have increased by up to 150 per cent, and the cost of public transport tickets has been pushed up. Germany’s main rail operator announced an increase in its ticket prices by at least 5 per cent from December 2022. These price rises have not been evenly distributed across Europe – with petrol stations in Hungary selling fuel at about half the price of those in Sweden, as a result of the Hungarian government’s cap on petrol prices and opposition to sanctions against Russia. Increased costs have been met with different measures by governments across Europe. Some have chosen to simply reduce fuel taxes, while others have opted for more transformative policies and slashed ticket prices for public transport. Could the introduction of discounted or even free public transport help relieve the cost-of-living crunch while paving the way for a new era of sustainable transportation?

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Europe’s summer of low-cost travel

In summer 2022, Germany made international headlines by introducing a monthly ticket costing 9 euros that was valid on almost all means of public transport except certain long-distance trains. This ticket, which was available from June to August, represented a major change for German public transport users accustomed to the country’s notoriously complex transport ticketing system.

While the German 9-euro ticket was mainly aimed at commuters, other countries attempted to attract holidaymakers back via the rails. For the second consecutive year, Denmark’s 399-krone (54-euro) Rejsepas (Travel Pass) allowed passengers to travel freely for an eight-day period using almost all modes of public transport. The offer was limited to 75,000 tickets and was only valid during the Danish summer holidays. The Swedish Tågluffarkort (Rail Pass), issued for periods of 7 to 30 days and costing between 1995 and 4695 Swedish krona (190 and 450 euros respectively), was clearly aimed at long-distance travellers. The offer was valid over the summer months on all trains run by national operator SJ, including those to Oslo and Copenhagen. Finnish operator VR also introduced a summer ticket. The Lomalippu (Holiday Ticket) was issued for periods of 5 to 30 days during the summer months and cost between 119 and 349 euros. This offer was subsequently revived for the October school holidays. Finally, in Czechia, the 7- or 14-day Jízdenka na léto (Ticket for Summer) offered by state railway company České dráhya was available throughout the summer for the price of 890 or 1290 Czech koruna (36 or 52 euros respectively). This ticket also appealed to business travellers as it allowed upgrades to first class in contrast to most of the other offers, which were limited to second class.

These tickets effectively follow in the footsteps of the Interrail Pass, which enables free European rail travel outside of the ticket holder’s country of residence for a limited period. While it is important to provide environmentally friendly options for holiday travel, including for those on a limited budget, these offers do little to help citizens who are struggling with the costs of daily transport.

Even if public transport is free, good accessibility is essential.

Free public transport – a win-win?

Travelling by public transport across Europe can be a complex undertaking. But even within countries, straightforward ticketing options for everyday customers are hard to find. While price plays an important role in attracting customers, good accessibility and a high-quality service are crucial to retain them on a permanent basis.

A key lesson drawn in Germany from the universal ticket experiment is the need for a simple ticketing system that works across regional borders, service providers, and different modes of transport. While most European railway companies provide annual subscriptions, the big disadvantage is their limitation to one service provider and mostly to rail. In Germany, there are now calls to transform the 9-euro-Ticket into a more permanent solution, although at a different price. For its part, Austria has introduced the strongly subsidised KlimaTicket Ö, which allows the use of all scheduled services (public and private rail, city and public transport) for an entire year for a maximum of 1095 euros. Switzerland’s GA travelcard, introduced in 1990, covers a similar range of means of transport as in Austria, albeit for a considerably higher price.

Other admittedly smaller countries such as Luxembourg have overcome the obstacles posed by public transport pricing by simply making it free. Malta recently followed suit by introducing free public transport in October 2022 – a move facilitated by the fact that public transport on the archipelago is effectively limited to buses. The Spanish government also took steps in this direction by providing free travel on local and regional trains operated by state-owned railway company Renfe in an offer that has been extended until the end of 2023. This was financed by channelling a direct portion of the funds raised through the introduction of a windfall tax on banks and energy companies. To encourage a lasting shift from individual modes of transport to rail, free tickets are only available for multiple journeys. Since the free ticket initiative came into force on 1 September, medium-distance trains have seen a 40 per cent increase in passenger numbers while local trains have seen a rise of 24 per cent.

The Belgian city of Hasselt could be considered as the birthplace of the idea of free public transport, but its experience also illustrates the challenges presented by fare-free travel. In 1997, the city’s mayor launched a scheme allowing public transport users to travel for free. In 2013, after 16 years in operation, the policy was abolished as it was deemed too expensive. In the same year, Estonian capital Tallinn introduced its own free public transport system (for inhabitants of the capital only), which, in spite of certain drawbacks, is still in operation. These cities’ experiences show that, to make free public transport sustainable, a minimum population of users appears to be necessary.

The advantages of a completely free public transport system are diverse. From an economic perspective, the most important savings result from no longer needing to provide a complex ticketing infrastructure. A positive environmental consequence is the lower levels of pollution thanks to the presence of fewer cars on the roads. And by removing financial barriers to access, free public transport is also more inclusive of economically disadvantaged groups.

Of course, getting people to leave their cars at home also requires increased public investment in transport systems. The German state of Baden- Württemberg has introduced a “mobility guarantee” ensuring the provision of regular and reliable public transport. This is to be funded by means of a “mobility pass” issued to car owners upon payment of a fee that gives free or reduced-rate access to public transport. One of the best-known ways of generating revenue for reinvestment into public transport infrastructure, however, is the introduction of toll systems. Examples include the Congestion Charge in London and the Trängselskatt in Stockholm and Gothenburg. Another approach involves requiring employers to make financial contributions on behalf of their employees that are then used to finance the public transport system. As early as 1970, the City of Vienna introduced a system under which employers are required to pay a “metro tax” for each of their employees under the age of 55 who work more than 10 hours per week. A similar system exists in France: companies with more than nine employees are taxed between 0.55 and 1.75 per cent of an employee’s wages to cover almost 50 per cent of public transport expenses.

Mobility policies must be social policies

Affordability plays a major role in the shift towards a more sustainable model of mobility for all. But this is not the only consideration. Even if public transport is free, such as in Malta or Luxembourg, good accessibility is essential. If stops are not conveniently located, people are likely to seek other options. This is particularly the case for people on lower incomes, who may work several jobs to make a living, and whose places of work are often not as well connected by public transport as office complexes. While cycling is a serious alternative for commuting in urban areas, the car still tends to be the means of choice for disadvantaged inhabitants of metropolitan areas – and even more so for those living in rural areas.

This is not to say that low-cost or free public transport does not help to tackle rising costs of living. The looming economic crisis will see living expenses increasing across the board, and for many commuters, free public transport would be an enormous help. But just as with the wider transformation of mobility to address the climate crisis, policies need to address the needs of those people currently ill-served by public transport.

Accessibility is vital for a sustainable mobility transition. The introduction of cheaper or free tickets removes the first barrier. Now we need to upscale and broaden the public transport offer so that even more people can switch to a more sustainable mode of transport. This shift is unavoidable if we wish to limit fossil fuel use.

Ultimately, a more comprehensive strategy is necessary to help people in need. With the introduction of its windfall tax, Spain has taken a first step. Those profiting from the current energy price increases must contribute a greater share of their gains. This is the only way to help everyone through the cost of living crisis.

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