— Removing fares “would reduce transport poverty” but have a limited impact on car use.
— Investment in capacity, frequency and coverage of public transport is more impactful.
National Transport Authority officials have published the research into fare-free public transport which Minister Eamon Ryan referred to in a written parliamentary answer.
As reported yesterday, the comments were from a longer written parliamentary answer published last Thursday, and not related directly to calls since the weekend for free public transport rather than restrictions on motorists.
The research titled Fare-Free Travel Policy Analysis was written by consultants EY for the National Transport Authority and is dated December 2022.
It said that “public transport demand is much more sensitive to the levels of public transport service provision than it is to pricing” — this means investment in capacity, frequency and coverage of public transport has more of an impact on usage.
The report said fare-free travel “may reduce active travel and incentivise unnecessary trips rather than reducing car trips.”
The report also outlines other possible downsides to no fares: “There may be unwanted behavioural issues associated with FFT. The policy could result in government spending being used to facilitate unnecessary trips. In addition, Austin (USA) experienced a rise in antisocial behaviour (ASB) when it introduced FFT. It is possible that some of the ASB observed on Luas and rail could be seen more frequently on buses if fares are not required while boarding. This could increase the security costs borne by transport operators.”
The conclusions from the report in full were:
EY has examined the potential impact of FFT [fare-free travel] from several perspectives using several evidence sources. These sources include transport strategies, statistics, case studies, academic literature, surveys and transport modelling. A relatively consistent picture has emerged as to the likely impacts of the policy in Ireland. Farefree travel would increase public transport demand and provide a financial benefit to users, but this would not be achieved through a substantial reduction in car use, according to multiple sources of evidence. The increase in public transport demand would instead largely be achieved by reductions in active travel and increased levels of overall trips.”
This undermines the strategic merit of the policy as it would not substantially boost the sustainability of the Irish transport system compared with alternative policies of a similar cost that aim to improve public transport service provision. Surveys of Irish car users suggest that price is not a major determinant in their decision not to use public transport. The lack of a reliable public transport service near to where they live is a much more salient factor in their travel decisions.
This aligns with international evidence, which suggests that public transport demand is much more sensitive to the levels of public transport service provision than it is to pricing. Therefore, the economic benefits of FFT could be limited. There are substantial societal benefits to be gained in directly reducing private car use. These include the benefits of reducing congestion, carbon emissions and the number of traffic collisions on Irish roads. However, given that the reduction in car use is limited in the FFT scenarios modelled for this project, these benefits are largely mitigated by the health disbenefits associated with reduced walking and cycling.
The net financial cost of removing fares would be in the region of €350-€550m per annum. Additional capital expenditure of €140m would be required to prevent overcrowding on buses. This extra capacity could take years to implement, and considerable overcrowding would be unavoidable in the initial years of the policy. The commercial bus sector could also be negatively impacted, competing with a free service, and additional public investment may be required to sustain commercial services.
Nonetheless, the benefits of FFT are present inisolation. Bus users, in particular, tend to belong to low-income groups, and FFT would reduce transport poverty. It would also improve bus boarding times, although this benefit is substantially reduced by the onset of leap cards and next-generation ticketing. Overall, these benefits would likely be more than offset by the costs and disbenefits of the FFT policy. The academic evidence is clear that public transport should receive substantial subsidies to encourage its use over and above car travel. However, FFT may reduce active travel and incentivise unnecessary trips rather than reducing car trips. Therefore, the policy may not be an effective use of public resources in the long term to achieve national policy goals.