photo of passenger on a bus with earphones and sunglasses

Why we need climate-friendly free bus travel

Buses are a lifeline for many people – and the planet. Free bus travel for under 30s is an idea whose time has come. You shouldn’t need a ticket to ride, writes Laura MacKenzie our transport campaigner.
  Published:  11 Feb 2019    |      4 minute read

All aboard.

Transport is the largest source of climate pollution in the UK, accounting for over a third of annual emissions. That's according to official statistics out this month.

If we can overhaul urban transport and travel, we can go a long way to avoiding catastrophic climate change.

And the changes needed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from transport would also help to reduce problems like air pollution and obesity. They’d make our cities and towns more liveable – for people and nature. 

Cutting transport emissions

So what can we do to slash emissions from transport while improving people's lives in urban areas?

Friends of the Earth commissioned research from think-tank Transport for Quality of Life to investigate. The findings show the need for government to focus on traffic reduction and to make car-free travel the norm.

One of these is free bus travel for under 30s.

When the Department for Transport (DfT) tries to show it’s taking climate change seriously, it likes to talk about electric vehicles. But the research from Transport for Quality of Life reveals that a switch to electric vehicles just isn’t enough – we have to get the volume of traffic down.

It shows that we need at least a 20% reduction by 2030. And this reduction might need to be greater, depending on the speed of the switch to electric vehicles and on how soon the electricity powering them comes from renewable sources rather than fossil fuels.   

Ever notice how people say they are stuck in traffic, but no one ever says I am the traffic?

Laura MacKenzie

We need a radical re-think of transport and travel. Free bus travel is a great start. Free at first for the under 30s. Then widened to all. This is one of 6 key public transport proposals we want the government to adopt in order to cut carbon emissions. 

Free bus travel is already a reality

We think free bus travel is an idea whose time has well and truly arrived.

You can already travel by bus for free in around 100 towns and cities (PDF) worldwide. These include more than 30 in the US and 20 in France. As well as in Poland, Sweden, Estonia, and Australia.

In the US free public transport is typically in small towns, tourism areas or university towns. Costs are met through local sales taxes, payroll taxes, parking fees, visitor charges or student tuition fees.

How about closer to home? In France, most of the places that offer fare-free public transport are also small, with populations under 45,000. But there are also 8 medium-sized areas, with populations between 70,000 and 200,000.

The biggest to date, Dunkirk, introduced free buses in September 2018. At the same time Dunkirk’s bus network is being redesigned; more people have a bus service close to their home, and service frequencies are better.

One reason French towns can contemplate free local public transport is that a payroll levy meets a high proportion of the cost. In Dunkirk around 90% of costs were already met by this levy before the start of free public transport.

Innovative funding moves are afoot in the UK too, with momentum gathering behind workplace parking levies in Scotland and elsewhere.  

Better public transport elsewhere in Europe

The largest city in the world to have made its public transport (buses and trams) free is Tallinn, Estonia, population 440,000. The city has actually profited. Although the city lost €12m in fares, it gained a €14m increase in revenues. More people moved to the city, increasing its tax base. Genius.

From next year, Luxembourg (population 600,000) may become the first country in the world to make all public transport fare-free, according to the recently-elected coalition government.

How to get free bus travel in the UK

In the UK free local bus services wouldn’t work under the current deregulated privatised regime.

But it would be possible with the other changes set out in the Transport for Quality of Life report’s policy proposals, which Friends of the Earth commissioned. These include:

  • better regulation so that local authorities can plan their bus network as a whole;
  • powers to raise funds for bus services from local taxation;
  • powers to establish municipal bus companies so that all profits are reinvested.

We already offer free bus travel to people over 65, eligible veterans, police officers and transport workers. Making bus travel free to the under 30s extends an existing scheme.

How much for free bus travel?

Free bus travel for under 30s in the UK would probably cost around £3 billion a year. Significant, but a fraction of current spending on roads. Or on HS2, which we can all agree isn’t going well.

The cash is there. It's a question of priorities. Schemes that protect public health and improve the environment are too often sidelined.

One problem is government cuts, which are devastating vital bus services. Instead of improving the affordability and availability of buses, the DfT has overseen a 75% rise in fares over the past 15 years. Over 3,300 services have been reduced or removed since 2010 in England and Wales.

In the UK 3 times more journeys are made by bus than by train. Buses are the main means of transport for the quarter of the population that doesn't own a car.

As the brilliant campaigners at Campaign for Better Transport argue, buses link thousands of people to jobs, schools and shops, every hour, every day that they run. Buses represent a lifeline – for people and planet.

Roads diversion

Friends of the Earth wants to see a transport system based around the needs of people and the environment, not more money sunk into infrastructure that supports more car journeys.

Free bus travel is a socially just policy that should take priority.

With the impacts of an unstable climate increasingly headline news, there is every reason for 2019 to be the year that government transforms transport and travel. We need to do this to avoid climate breakdown and meet our Paris Agreement commitments to limit global temperature rises.

It will make many of us healthier and happier too.

Read more in our report: Transforming Public Transport: Regulation, spending and free buses for the under 30s (pdf).