Since April 2022, young Lisbon residents, as well as those over 65, have enjoyed unlimited access to buses, metros and those famous yellow trams. “Along with Tallinn in Estonia, we are the only European capital and one of the few cities in southern Europe to have made public transport free. The results are beyond our expectations: just over 90,000 people use the new subscription, compared to 70,000 at the start of the year, or already more than one citizen in eight, and we have seen a sharp increase since the start of the school year. We hope that our example will inspire other cities,” explains Carlos Moedas, the mayor of Lisbon.
If the primary objective of the measure is to reduce emissions in this city which is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2030, its most marked benefit is not environmental, but social. “Among the new users, there are many seniors for whom taking the bus or the metro helps to break their loneliness,” explains the councilor.
In 2013, the Estonian capital was the first city in the world to make its transport free. Seven years later, Luxembourg was the first country to allow its residents and tourists to board without tickets. In October 2022, it was the island of Malta’s turn to offer its residents the opportunity to travel by bus without spending a cent. Without going so far as to make it free for all or a majority of the population, many regions and cities in the United States as well as in Europe, but also in China, have made public transport prices more attractive in recent years.
From Geneva and Basel, where public transport is free for tourists, to Austria where the Klimaticket allows travel for 3 euros per day, to the famous German flat rate of 49 euros per month. Let us also cite Spain, which has decided to extend, due to its success, until the end of 2023 the free use of its regional railways, decided in September 2022 to promote public transport, but above all to increase purchasing power .
“Free public transport has been debated for decades. The main argument in its favor is to promote mobility for the less well-off who are forced to live in the suburbs,” explains Oded Cats, transport specialist at the University of Delft, who recommends, like the IPCC, specific measures for disadvantaged populations. In a study on Tallinn, this researcher demonstrates that free access for all can have perverse effects and even be harmful to the environment. Thus, in the Estonian capital, the population has abandoned soft mobility. This is why the Netherlands, where students have traveled free of charge for more than thirty years, is not considering extending this system, believing that “previous experiences have not made it possible to reduce road traffic”.
To convince motorists, it is better to raise parking or fuel prices, believes Oded Cats, stressing that “the choice of mode of transport also depends on subjective factors”. To promote public transport in order to reduce emissions from the most polluting sector, confidence in buses and metros, through their punctuality and frequency but above all their image, is even more important than their price.
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