Are you tired of forking out hundreds of dollars monthly on buses, trains, and light rail? You may not have to pay for those trips in the future, as more places around the world consider ditching tickets in favour of free public transport policies. 

Luxembourg was the first country to make all forms of public transport free in 2020. Germany is one of the latest to consider cutting fares permanently after a successful trial of a €9 ($A14) monthly ticket reduced air pollution levels and increased ridership. Even cities in Australia like Melbourne have a zone where tram journeys are free.

Dr Mike Harris, lecturer in urban design and landscape architecture from the School of Built Environment at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, says ditching fares has many other benefits for cities and citizens.

“One of the ideas is it entices more drivers to leave their cars at home and switch to more economical and environmentally friendly modes of mass transit,“ Dr Harris says. “But removing fares is another way to help people with the rising cost of living and improve equitable access to mobility.”

Fare-free public transport

But in truth, there isn’t such thing as a ‘free’ public transport system – it must be funded from somewhere. Instead, such systems are often supported by means other than collecting funds from passengers.

Dr Harris likens the idea to how Medicare operates. It’s a publicly funded service people contribute to through their taxes, but some may use it more than others.

scanning an opal card reader at a train barrier

Around a quarter of the cost of a public transport journey is currently covered by the fare. Photo: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock.

“Public transport could arguably be considered a similar universal basic service, but for mobility,” Dr Harris says. “When you eliminate fares, it emphasises that public transport serves the public.

“It shouldn’t be measured on whether it is profitable, but by how it improves quality of life for people.”

Read more: Ditch the car to improve Sydney’s liveability

Most mass transit systems worldwide are already covered to some extent by public funding. In New South Wales (NSW), about a quarter of the cost of public transport is covered by fares, with taxpayers subsidising the remaining costs.

“It would be possible to reduce ticket prices further by increasing subsidisation. It’s just a matter of how much,” Dr Harris says.

An alternative to subsidising transport costs for those who can afford it anyway would be to charge cheaper flat rates or waive fees for those on low incomes or in areas where public transport is available but underused, Dr Harris says. 

“It’s probably more common than you think for people on lower incomes to limit their public transport usage because the costs add up,” Dr Harris says. “So, for them, not having to pay would be one less cost.

“But more than that, it opens many more opportunities to travel where they need, when they need.” 

Dr Harris says broader economic benefits may also offset revenue shortfalls from slashing ticket prices. In NSW, the decision to waive public transport fares in April last year saw a spike in trips and consumer spending across the CBD.

“Congestion on the roads costs the economy nearly $20 billion annually from people wasting time in traffic,” Dr Harris says. “More of those people using public transport means increases the activity happening in cities, which helps bring those losses down.”

heavy rush hour traffic entering sydney harbour bridge

Traffic congestion negatively affects economic growth. Photo: Shutterstock.

Improving public transport services

While free travel may not get everyone to leave their vehicles in the driveway, it will still convert some of those trips into public transport journeys. But even a marginal decrease in cars on the road could still make an impact.

“There will always be those who need to drive. But even taking a small portion of those cars off the road eases congestion for those who need to drive,” Dr Harris says. “It also opens opportunities to turn some more road space into active transport infrastructure for those who want to cycle and walk, which reduces congestion even further.”

Read more: Why cycling lanes should be on the fast track for cities

But eliminating fares is only one part of the equation. The quality of services, like the frequency, reliability, and scale of coverage, is crucial to enticing more people away from cars.

“To attract and accommodate more riders, fare reduction needs to be accompanied by more investment in increasing quality services to avoid issues like overcrowding and schedule disruptions,” Dr Harris says.

Another part of improving services is catering to a broader range of needs and users. In addition to making all forms of public transport free, the NSW Greens also want pets permitted to ride too. Most places in Europe, including the UK, allow pets to travel on a lead or in carriers.

young person riding the bus with a pug

Australia could be considered an outlier when it comes to allowing pets to travel on public transport – something the NSW Greens are pushing to change. Photo: Shutterstock.

“Every member of the public should be able to use public transport regardless of their means. Nobody should be excluded because it is simply too expensive or because they have a pet,” Dr Harris says.

“Even if it’s not entirely fare-free, making public transport fares much more affordable would still improve the liveability of our cities for people and help them run more smoothly.”