people getting on a train in Auckland
Photo: Getty Images

SocietyFebruary 18, 2021

Why doesn’t New Zealand just make public transport free?

people getting on a train in Auckland
Photo: Getty Images

Ditching the fees may seem like an easy way to reduce carbon emissions and help transport poverty. But, as environmental sociologist Kirsty Wild explains, free PT is far from a silver bullet.

When it comes to carbon fairness, transport is a bit of a minefield. Should low-income communities get cycleways because they deserve the investment? Or is this just imposing a responsibility to be “green” on to already overburdened, time-poor communities? Perhaps the cycleways should go into wealthier communities, who should bear a greater responsibility to get out of their cars and on their bikes, given their much more substantial carbon emissions? Put them here, put them there, or perhaps put them nowhere, as many councils seem to regularly settle on.

The issue of “free” public transport is another hella-complex policy call. Ultimately, cities and countries that have decided to go down this route to reduce carbon emissions have also felt a pretty strong call to do something about transport poverty. In other words, if it doesn’t produce striking gains on the carbon front, at least we will have reduced the daily misery of financial insecurity, debt, foregone mobility and forced walking for all the New Zealanders who basically can’t afford any form of transport at all, public or private.

I wish we had an abundance of free-public-transport experimental studies that we could dig into for evidence on carbon reduction, but we don’t. What we do have suggests that just making PT free on its own probably won’t make much of a dent in carbon emissions. You also need to make it better, and you need to reduce public subsidies for drivers (parking, road building etc) and shift this over to PT. And still, there will be an experimental element to it all. Modelling for Auckland Council suggests, for instance, that if we move people onto PT, then this will likely free up the roads a bit which will likely… induce more driving, leading to very modest carbon cuts. Driving reduction strategies are clearly the twin sister of free public transport. 

Free public transport probably matters the most to those on low incomes, and those living with disability. Introduce congestion charges and the like and use them to make public transport free for Community Services Card holders, and the Total Mobility scheme free for people living with disability. Despite the debates about the fairness of congestion charging, so far the evidence suggests that it’s pro-equity if you use it to fund public transport. Low-income New Zealanders and disabled New Zealanders are the ones who most urgently need affordable, low-carbon transport options, so let’s make it happen. Targeting has its limitations, but removal of part charges for these groups is long overdue.

And remember not to tie your colours too strongly or absolutely to the mast of public transport. In public health, we work with the “healthy transport pyramid” that recognises that when you feed all the different goods into the model (health, CO2, wellbeing, user satisfaction), it spits out walking and cycling as your top priority for investment. They are the lowest cost, most health-enhancing, and produce the least CO2. With e-biking, the “active transport radius” has now expanded to compete with heavy vehicle public transport over both short and medium-distance trips (0-15km). In other words, walking and biking infrastructure, and free access to e-bikes, might be a better “public transport” spend in some areas.

Finally, experience suggests that if you want to experiment with more “free” stuff in the transport world as a way to address either carbon emissions or poverty, you will have some serious dogma to confront. Mayors of cities who have experimented with free public transport have had much to say about the need to cut through received and pedalled (mis)information. Debates about making public transport free seem particularly hamstrung by a few sometimes understandable and sometimes slightly mean-spirited and inaccurate objections that have a decidedly neoliberal flavour. Here are the top four contenders, unpacked:

  1. People don’t appreciate free stuff, and they will trash it. Perhaps tell that to all the people who enjoy (and on the whole don’t trash) our free libraries and parks. In fact the evidence suggests the opposite: making things free actually gives them a “premium” that increases their attractiveness over and above the cost savings involved.
  2. Public transport provides both a public and a private benefit so it should always attract “part charges”. This is really only true for middle-class and high-income people. For low-income people, the evidence is pretty overwhelming that it’s a social good, and treating it like a market good at all is creating situations where lower income New Zealanders are having to trade off food and transport costs.
  3. If we make public transport free, then buses and trains will become “mobile community centres”, and vandalism and antisocial behaviour will increase. Drivers shouldn’t have to deal with this. There is a little bit of evidence to support this. But I would argue that it is the same stuff that our free libraries have to deal with, and they don’t deal with it by introducing entry charges to keep people out who might have nowhere else to go or might have drug or addiction issues. This is, of course, yet another argument for dealing with homelessness, which now affects 1 in 100 people in Aotearoa. It is not a compelling argument for part charges on public transport.
  4. We can spend the money on removing part charges on public transport (for some or everyone), or we can spend it on improving public transport frequency and quality: pick one. You can have hospitals, or you can have drugs to put in them: pick one. Come on, in one of the richest countries in the world, this is really an argument?

So, deciding to remove part charges on public transport (for some or everyone) as a carbon-emission-reduction strategy might require both a degree of comfort with acting before all the evidence is in and a commitment to tweak and experiment – because urgency might trump perfect empirical resolution. Such a move, however, would be guaranteed to reduce the misery of transport poverty in Aotearoa.

Keep going!