Ireland’s free public transport debate has both sides not dealing with realpolitiks

— Will electric cars charged at home by solar eventually be the ultimate reason for free public transport?

Comment & Analysis: If the Government rolled out free public transport tomorrow, what would be the effect? If Intercity rail services were included, already crowded trains would jammed even further to a point where booking is required as it is sometimes around busy weekends. This would be reflected across most public transport services.

Buses in cities, on commuter routes, and across main inter-urban routes are already in high demand. Some services with capacity will be used more, but little peak-time capacity is available. Last year, Dublin Bus exceeded pre-Covid levels of use, Luas had recovered, and Dart services were not far behind. All would likely gain extra passengers, especially around non-peak times.

Some of the largest changes could be outside cities — for example, on buses or train trips where there is capacity but where it makes more sense for most people to drive rather than take a train or bus because of cost or time (because public transport isn’t fast enough). Making public transport free would likely push at least some people over the edge in saying the time penalty is worth it for some trips.

But in terms of the pure number of passengers gained from cars, we’re not talking about that many cars before those services are also maxed out due to capacity or, in some cases, limited appeal. Free public transport makes more sense in terms of social/climate justice than climate action.

Modal change (where people change the mode of transport they use) can have strange knock-on effects.

This brings us to the parliamentary question response last year in the name of Minister Eamon Ryan, who said that free public transport would have the effect of “reductions in active travel and an increased level of unnecessary trips”. The phrasing was foolish to the extreme regardless of whoever signed off on it being inserted into the response.

The Ernst and Young report on free fares, on which the response was based, has a bit more finesse. But it was also flawed in other ways — nobody really believes free public transport would just reduce car use by 1%, right?

But you can add free public transport and add capacity? Yes, you can. But the free public transport part of that isn’t doing the heavy lifting and funding is not unlimited.

There is a choice to be made between adding to capacity and frequency of services that would be better spent on extra services. Those who claim otherwise are not dealing with the realpolitik of the situation.

The people advocating for free public transport also really aren’t selling it as much as they could be.

The amount of planning/procurement work involved in fare determinations, zonal systems, next-generation ticketing, etc., drains resources.

However, the critical point is boarding buses: passengers would be free to hop on and off without tagging on or messing with coins or having to interact with drivers for other tickets — this would apply to both city services across different city, town buses, regional and intercity buses.

This would not only speed up the boarding process (even more so than any form of tapping can do), but it also means people unfamiliar with public transport and people with difficulties have less to worry about. So, it really knocks barriers to use.

The effect these barriers have on attractiveness and accessibility is often underestimated by the same people who dismiss cheaper or free fares out of hand. Sometimes other noble things are on their minds such as the long-term viability of public transport (for example, what if a Government which doesn’t want to fund services comes into office?).

There are also actual barriers, such as at Dart stations etc — these are expensive, need to be maintained, replaced etc and make public transport that bit less attractive, less inviting and less accessible. These barriers are often said to be about more than ticketing, but ticket staff could be reallocated to better serve passengers in different ways.

But those against free public transport are also not dealing with the realpolitik of the situation. People in positions of power who advocate that some level of payment is a good thing are not addressing the climate justice and fairness issues, which can be addressed — at least partly — without free fares.

These measures could include discounts on group travel, discounts on family travel or wider free/discounted travel for children, and maybe even making a 90-minute train or bus journey down the country cost no more than it does in Dublin. You don’t need a whole system based around Leap cards for this, and it could be especially useful in areas where trains and buses are rarely full.

If you’re in a transport agency or an advocacy position and are against free public transport, you really need to address the fairness question — many fares aren’t fair, and many others are not attractive to people who have access to cars.

Increasing any fares under the guise of fairness linked to KM travelled while people in a limited zone around Dublin get access to any combination of public transport for €2 for 90 minutes really is the height of dismissing the real realpolitik of the situation.

Saying things like “80% of fares remain unchanged” won’t stop fare increases damaging confidence in the public transport system.

Not everything can be done at once, but it’s not in line with climate justice, for example, not having a clear plan to fix the difference between travelling in Dublin with the 90-minute fare vs the cost when you live just outside the Leap zone, or when travelling from village and a town down the country, or the difference between having a discount on Irish Rail services, but not on commercial bus services which some people have no choice to rely on.

In some cases, the fare determination has all but wiped out the Government’s 20% reduction in public transport fares. That also doesn’t sound fair.

Without quickly addressing the inequalities, nonsensical pricing structures, and the ability to pay by other methods (such as tapping your phone), the demand for free public transport will only grow faster. Many of the measures that could cut the legs under the free fares argument by delivering much of the benefits have yet to be used, that will have to change.


  1. Eamon Ryan’s comment about “unnecessary journeys” was poorly phrased, but there was a fair point that free fares could lead people hopping on and off buses for 1 and 2 stops when they could easily walk.

    The main point he made though was that fares net the transport system €700m/yr. Losing that funding would reduce services. And if there was a revenue source to replace that funding, the best use of that revenue stream wouldn’t be to provide free service, it would be to add increased rural services, improve frequencies in towns and cities, fund a western railway etc.

  2. I read a well researched article a few years ago, but don’t know where, which argued that if your goal is to get cars off the road then you should direct funds at improving availability, reliability, quality of public transport, rather than “depending” on free fares – the gist of the argument was that those who currently drive are not going to be motivated by free fares so much as a quality service. If you want social justice, then find ways to make public transport cheaper / free for those who most need it. But I don’t remember any discussion in the article on the cost of ticketing, which may change the balance a bit.


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