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Fare-free public transport against injustice – if optimised

In an interview with Intelligent Transport, Daniel Štraub of Jagiellonian University in Krakow pontificates the benefits of fare-free public transport that is just and fair for everyone, and the implications for society and the transport sector when that isn’t the case.

fare-free

Many municipalities worldwide are abolishing or reducing fares to challenge the issues of inequality and reduce carbon emissions”

Transport planning is a complex discipline that requires a systematic approach to fulfil and support sustainable development. If not thought through, the policy could succeed in aspects such as reducing the carbon footprint, but simultaneously support the embedded inequalities within society. An example is a policy where car-owners can benefit from fare-free public transportation while others have to pay. Unfortunately, this is not a joke, but policy in practice in Pabianice, a town in Poland. 

Many municipalities worldwide are abolishing or reducing fares to challenge the issues of inequality and reduce carbon emissions. It’s a step towards meeting the basic needs of those who are dependent on public transportation and at the same time encouraging people with choices to behave in a more environment-friendly manner. Unfortunately, this is not the case with Pabianice. There, the fare-free transport policy’s complexity does more harm than good. 

Get and go 

The core principle of fare-free public transport policy (FFPT) lies in abolishing fares in public transport. Public planning authorities are using it to follow the sustainable development narrative. 

Nowadays, more than 100 municipalities all over the world are experimenting with FFPT1. Besides encouraging people to use public transportation frequently and reduce car use, FFPT is seen as a way to improve everyone’s wellbeing by providing access to public transportation on equal terms. Thus, everyone has the same opportunities to participate in day-to-day life without being limited due to transportation options.  

Cleaning the air 

The city council in Pabianice decided to implement the limited version of fare-free transportation at the end of January 2019. The reason for doing so was simple – to reduce car traffic resulting in less congested streets, cleaner air and more frequently used public transportation. However, the odd thing here is that the policy is addressed only to car-owners. To be more specific – those who own a car and are residents of the city. All others have to pay. 

For a city to promote public transport, and at the same time follow sustainable development by reducing traffic flows, a more systematic strategy is required”

Of course, it is right that city planning authorities in Pabianice address environmental issues to improve its residents’ welfare. The main problem in this case, however, is the selective character of this FFPT modification, resulting in an unjust transportation system. Unjust, because the city council has put those dependent on public transport in a different position to those who have more choices. Here, the group being gifted fare-free public transportation is partially responsible for the problems of congestion and emissions, whose consequences influence everyone equally. 

For a city to promote public transport, and at the same time follow sustainable development by reducing traffic flows, a more systematic strategy is required. Sustainable transportation is more than just getting cars out of the streets. It is about creating equal conditions for all citizens and finding a way to effectively follow such a development in the long-term. 

The case of Pabianice seems more like an experiment, not connected to the rest of the transportation and urban development. Plus, incredibly, it favours those who are partially responsible for environmental pollution. 

What are the other elements of this policy? What are the reasons behind it? These are the questions that I would like to ask the city officials in Pabianice. 

Where to learn from? 

Tallinn implemented the FFPT policy to promote public transport, reduce car use and increase the mobility of Tallinn residents”

Unlike Pabianice, the capital of Estonia presents a positive example. Tallinn implemented the FFPT policy to promote public transport, reduce car use and increase the mobility of Tallinn residents2. Even though the shift from cars to public transport was relatively small (around five per cent), overall public transportation ridership has increased by 14 per cent. This might not be so impressive, but we have to keep in mind that the use of public transport was already high in Tallinn before the fare abolition. What’s more, around 26 per cent of the new users are from low-income social groups (less than €300 per month), and 32 per cent unemployed. 

But, we don’t have to go that far from Tallinn to name some other successful examples of FFPT. According to the research on FFPT in Poland3, there are more than 30 towns which have abolished fares to address the issue of mobility. 

To avoid ‘useless’ mobility? 

A fare-free public transport policy is successful in getting more people to use public transport even to the degree that they use it even more they actually need. This is called ‘useless’ mobility, and it’s being used as a counter-argument against the FFPT. 

We might now wonder if this is the case in Pabianice – do they have this limited and unjust policy in order to prevent useless mobility?  

A fare-free public transportation policy is a helpful instrument to get closer to sustainable development”

A fare-free public transportation policy is a helpful instrument to get closer to sustainable development. However, we have to understand that it is not only FFPT that city planning authorities could use. There are many other restrictive and motivational4 measures, and implementation of the fare-free policy should respect that. 

It should be essential for city planning authorities to know the available instruments, including their direct and indirect causes. With this knowledge, they could develop a strategy to create an environment-friendly and socially just transport and urban system. 

The fare-free concept won’t heal all of the scars of a given transportation system. In fact, if misused, it could create new ones. However, we must keep in mind that it all boils down to the complex urban strategy in transport planning. Thus, fare-free public transport policy should be the cherry on the top, which works well with other instruments and supports a shared development vision.

References 

  1. Kębłowski, W. (2019). Why (not) abolish fares? Exploring the global geography of fare-free public transport. Transportation.
  2. Cats, O., Susilo, Y.O. and Reimal, T. (2016). The prospects of fare-free public transport: evidence from Tallinn. Transportation, 44(5), pp.1083–1104.
  3. Štraub, D. (2019a). Riding without a ticket: geography of free fare public transport policy in Poland. Urban Development Issues, 64(1), pp.17–27.
  4. Štraub, D. and Jaroš, V. (2019b). Free fare policy as a tool for sustainable development of public transport services. HUMAN GEOGRAPHIES – JOURNAL OF STUDIES AND RESEARCH IN HUMAN GEOGRAPHY, 13(1), pp.45–59.
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