Learnings from Covid - Is Fare-Free public transit possible and sustainable?

How we use transportation has significantly changed during COVID. First of all, when people were working from home, there was much less need for public transport, and also, there were fewer cars on the road trying to reach their workplace. With these two adjustments, there was less congestion on the roads, and the level of pollution was also lower. To support people during the crisis, many urban areas offered free transportation and free parking. Wouldn’t it be great to keep things unchanged and maintain these services free? Well, the answer isn’t that obvious to this question. Let’s take a closer look at the question of fare-free public transport:

Who pays when we travel fare-free

While not having to pay for transportation sounds good, it doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have to pay for it. Only the end-user is not the one paying for it.

When something is given for free, oftentimes, we appreciate it less, and fare-free transportation is no exception. It could easily end up providing services that people don’t use or unnecessarily overuse which means a waste of resources.

Our long-term goal is to entice people to use transportation methods with more eco-conscious minds and use them when and where those are needed. If people do not have to pay for their transportation, there is a chance we can’t reduce congestions (as we do now with the various congestion taxes in cities like London, for example). If we can’t reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, there are still people “paying” for that with their health affected by pollution, time wasted in traffic jams, and environmental damage.

Public transportation is not for all

Even if we made public transportation fare-free, not everybody would want to use it. Some people don’t like to travel on public transport, and even at cost, they prefer to travel in their own alternative transportation solution. Hence a free solution would not cater to these users at all.

First–mile, last-mile, and remote areas

There is always a question about how to access urban transportation hubs from less-connected areas to the city and how to travel from public transport stations to the final destination. If the distance is not easy and quick to manage, people will likely to default driving cars. Again, convenience and accessibility will often outweigh the fare-free offer.

The way to move forward:

Offering some fare-free solutions (instead of a universal fare-free option) can be the right solution. We can encourage people to take public transport and combined with micromobility solutions the last and first-mile travel can also be effectively managed. With this approach, we can reduce pollution and traffic jams on the roads and inspire people to travel smarter and more consciously.