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The Hidden Costs of Free Transit

News broke last week that Paris is exploring the feasibility of adopting a free city-wide public transportation system. This would be a pioneer decision for a city of Paris’s size, with over 2 million residents in the city’s core and nearly 10 million residents if including its peripheral suburbs. It’s yet to be determined just...

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Date

May 23, 2018

News broke last week that Paris is exploring the feasibility of adopting a free city-wide public transportation system. This would be a pioneer decision for a city of Paris’s size, with over 2 million residents in the city’s core and nearly 10 million residents if including its peripheral suburbs. It’s yet to be determined just who would be included in the program or if services will be offered to tourists free of charge as well. Currently, Paris welcomes over 80 million tourists each year, who contribute €28 billion in revenue from transportation expenditure alone.

As it stands, Estonia holds the largest free transportation program in the world- which will soon effect 1.3 million people. The capital city of Tallinn has been providing municipal residents with free transportation since 2013, and the country has recently announced plans to expand this program nation-wide.

While the introduction of free transportation boosted Tallinn’s annual income by €20 million, the number of transportation users increased only 1.2%. This strange disparity is due largely to Estonia’s political pre-conditions where the majority of Tallinn residents had remained unregistered in the city. By providing free transportation to proven residents, this acted as an incentive to register with the municipality. As the government collects €1000 from annual income taxes, increased registration was enough to offset the associated costs.

In Paris, public transportation is dominated by the second busiest metro system in all of Europe, and is used comfortably by all demographics. So how will the system look with even greater ridership if transportation is made free? Will current infrastructure be able to support such an increase? And where will infrastructure maintenance costs come from if not from the users themselves?

 

Free transportation: a false revelation?

While many people think of free transportation as a radical and progressive idea, this system is already commonplace throughout the world and has proven itself far from ideal. Streets and highways are predominately free-for-use transportation systems, deeply buried in our urban framework. These networks are over-utilized, exploited, and demand high maintenance costs. Free highways only encourage more use, and it’s not since the introduction of alternative costs such as parking fees and car bans that driving rates have actually begun to decrease

After all, money is in many ways a form of democratic participation. Where people spend their money acts as a vote of confirmation in their values. The difference between $1/hr parking, and $3/hr parking may be enough to discourage users from driving and instead spend their money on alternative (and ideally, more sustainable!) transportation.

What if this same idea could be applied to peak-hour transportation, and if roadways were tolled if used between certain hours? Or if this principal were applied to offer free public transportation only in off-hours, as a way to avoid placing high pressures on transit infrastructure.

Publicly-funded public transportation reiterates the desire and belief for such services. While many fare-free programs stem from sustainability-driven interests, several trial programs have failed, instead insinuating almost polarizing outcomes. In Austin’s 1990 free transportation trial, the program hoped to encourage more car drivers to use public transportation, but instead, the switch occurred from already sustainably-minded travellers such as those who walked or biked. Car usership remained largely unaffected.

While free transportation certainly has a nice ring to it, the solution may be seen as taking the easy way out. Beyond offering flashy solutions, how can we take ownership and account for longstanding issues? The real issues lie within our car-centric framework, which we must acknowledge as harmful for the health and well-being of our cities, their peripheries, and all living-beings inside them. How can we get more people out of their cars to create safer streets for all? With car accidents and smog emissions occurring at alarming rates, the costs of transportation no longer seem so free.

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash