Research from our fellows

April 22, 2021

The time is right for free fare local public transport

Professor John Whitelegg was appointed FIT Senior Fellow in 2020.

Road safety

The UK national government and approximately 300 councils have declared a climate emergency (Note 1). But while most local authorities are enthusiastic about electric vehicles and charging points, few have the same enthusiasm for buses.

Very few have taken bold steps to increase the quantity and quality of buses, or developed clear plans to transfer substantial numbers of car trips to buses.

This is a significant omission and one that damages the chances of reducing transport carbon and delivering the overall reductions that we must achieve to comply with the Paris agreement targets.

In England there has been a sustained and savage attack on bus funding:

…funding for buses is almost £400 million a year lower than it was a decade ago, with local authority funding having fallen by £163 million a year and national funding having fallen by £234 million a year in real terms. The result has been that well over 3,000 local authority supported bus services have been lost or reduced in a decade; 243 in the past year alone.

Campaign for Better Transport, 2019

Figures from the County Councils Network in England which represents 36 county and unitary councils show that funding for bus services for those areas has almost halved by £89.8m since 2010 – a 46% drop.

In contrast, city regions’ drop in funding is £29.2m over the same period, representing a 19% drop. This is both government funding and council subsidises, with local authorities having little choice but to scale back their level of support due to huge funding challenges they have faced since 2010.

County Councils Network, 2020

Things are different in Sweden. Public transport is regarded as a vital part of transport decarbonisation and this is reflected in the quantity and quality of bus services and networks (urban and rural) in this country (Note 2).

Sweden’s association for promoting public transport (Svensk Kollektivtrafic) concluded (Note 3):

We estimate that the measures outlined in this report would result in a 28% rise in public transport use (compared to 2010) and a 10% reduction in the use of private cars. In other words the market share represented by the public transport sector would increase from its current level of 27% to 33% by 2030.

Svensk Kollektivtrafik, 2018

The failure to grasp the potential of public transport and modal shift from car to bus and rail is a dramatic failure to make full use of highly integrated, high quality bus services in transport decarbonisation. This has to change and change well before 2030.

The change will require a dramatic transformation of bus service provision cross the UK. A key part of the transformation is “Free Fare Public Transport” (FFPT).  If we are really serious about climate change and the urgent need to deliver the Paris agreement, we need to plan for the organisation, funding and delivery of FFPT.

FFPT already exists in 96 locations

“Free Fare Public Transport” (FFPT)

Source:  Kębłowski W. (2020)   Why (not) abolish fares? Exploring the global geography of fare-free public transport. Transportation 47, 2807–2835 (2020) Visit site.

Examples of FFPT (population numbers in brackets) include Luxembourg (614,000), Hasselt, Belgium (73,000), Tallinn, Estonia (445,000), Grenoble, France (158,000) and Dunkirk, France (201,332).

FFPT will deliver a much-needed boost to modal transfer from car to bus, a fairer transport system that rewards those without cars, those on low incomes and those too young to drive. It widens accessibility and reduces social exclusion especially in rural areas and it decarbonises transport.

FFPT delivers a strong psychological boost to sustainable transport and decarbonisation. Giving something positive and valuable to those making travel choices is a much better strategy than interventions that take something away.

FFPT would not be a stand-alone policy.  There is no point in having a free fare system grafted on to a poor quality and inadequate bus service provision.  The introduction of FFPT would coincide with the adoption of much improved bus services along the lines suggested by CPRE in its report on Every village, every hour 2021 buses report.  It would also be monitored, supervised and managed by regional transport authorities along the same lines as the “Verkehrsverbund” in Germany (Note 4).

What next?

How do we proceed from a radical suggestion for a dramatic transformation of bus services to something that is specific, tangible, costed and delivered?

The next stage is a demonstration project.  The South Shropshire Net Zero Carbon by 2030 project is now nearing completion and progress can be followed on the website.

The transport component of this project calls for a 48% reduction of transport carbon in the Ludlow parliamentary constituency by 2030 (population 85,000). It concludes that 100% decarbonisation of land transport is possible if we adopt much stronger interventions.

The constituency is predominantly rural with important and very attractive market towns (Ludlow, Bridgnorth and Bishop’s Castle). Car ownership is >85% and bus service provision is inadequate. This provides an ideal test-bed for FFPT and the next stage is a costed proposal for the introduction of FFPT and an associated improvement in service provision and co-ordination and monitoring exercise to provide evidence on its impact on transferring trips from car to bus and carbon reduction.

There will now be a proposal for funding of a Ludlow Constituency FFPT project directly linked to a dramatic improvement in the quantity, quality and integration of bus and rail services and to the target of net zero transport carbon by 2030.

This will be the subject of another blog in May 2021


Note 1

300/404 (74%) of District, County, Unitary & Metropolitan Councils have declared a Climate Emergency to date. Also 8 Combined Authorities/City Regions. Climate Emergency UK has the full list.

Note 2

More in my Shropshire Rural Buses Report, Foundation for Integrated Transport. Download here.

Note 3

Lindblom, H et al (2018) Kollektivtrafikens Bidrag Till Tranpsortsektorns Klimatmal (Public Transport’s Contribution to the Transport Sector’s Climate Template). More here.

Note 4

Ralph Buehler, John Pucher & Oliver Dümmler (2019) Verkehrsverbund: The evolution and spread of fully integrated regional public transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 13:1, 36-50, DOI: 10.1080/15568318.2018.1431821

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