Free public transport would incentivise excessive travel, says report

Eliminating fares for buses and trains would result in just 1% reduction in car travel, Ernst and Young tells NTA

Free public transport would be “overly costly and incentivise excessive travel” and would result in just a 1 per cent reduction in car travel according to an independent report commissioned by the National Transport Authority (NTA).

Motorists are more likely to switch to public transport if fuel prices increase, or parking and road usage is restricted, rather than if fares are made free, according to a report from accountancy firm Ernst and Young.

The elimination of fares would cost up to €550 million a year, or €750 million a year if private bus operators were included in the scheme. It could also increase antisocial behaviour by users, and there was a risk of “public backlash” if the policy had to be reversed, the report found.

The report was submitted to the NTA last December but was published after it was referenced in the Dáil last week by Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. In response to a parliamentary question from People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith on whether he was considering free fares, Mr Ryan said it would result in “reductions in active travel and an increased level of unnecessary trips”.


In follow-up questioning by Ms Smith on Tuesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was not “overly concerned” about unnecessary trips on public transport and didn’t think “many people are going around on buses and trains just for the craic”.

However, Mr Varadkar said there were “genuine problems with free public transport”, largely related to cost and capacity. “We could see capacity being overloaded, that wouldn’t be an advantage to anyone and, secondly, there is an issue of cost,” he said.

The Ernst and Young report, which analysed academic literature, case studies of free schemes, public surveys and transport modelling, found free public transport was more likely to result in fewer people walking and cycling, than a cut to car use.

Where it had been made free, public transport use had increased by almost 22 per cent on average. “This increase is driven by a reduction in walking by 7 per cent, a reduction in cycling by 13 per cent but only a reduction of 1 per cent in car trips,” the report said.

The net financial cost of removing fares would be in the region of between €350 million and €550 million per annum. If the scheme was extended to private bus operators it would cost the exchequer another €150 million to €200 million per annum. New buses would have to be bought to prevent overcrowding, which would add an overall capital cost of €140 million.

There were some potential benefits to the measure, the report found, including a reduction in congestion and environmental improvements due to the decline in car use.

“The national fare-free travel policy has been found to generate marginal external benefits of €15 million per annum. This is driven by the reduction in car use and the associated fall in congestion, carbon emissions, pollution, noise and road traffic accidents.” However, it said: “These benefits are offset by the reduction in health and absenteeism benefits associated with reduced active travel.”

Surveys found poor public transport availability and reliability were greater barriers to reducing car use than public transport pricing, it said.

Free transport “increases the risk that the public transport system is overcrowded, poorly managed and has higher rates of antisocial behaviour that could deter car owners from using public transport”, the report found.

“Evidence shows that free public transport encourages additional “low-value” trips,” it said. “These trips range from people making trips to amenities slightly further away from where they live to people loitering and engaging in antisocial behaviour. The former involves using public funds to enable trips that are not of high value to the user. The latter makes public transport itself less attractive to users who would otherwise drive.”

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times