Free public transport: Here’s how other EU countries fared after abolishing payments

A National Transport Authority report says free public transport would incentivise escessive travel in Ireland, but how have other countries found it?

Tallinn, Estonia

Population: 420,000

Introduction: 2013

Operation and outcome: After the first year the number of public transport trips increased by 14 per cent, walking decreased by 40 per cent, and car trips decreased by 5 per cent. The policy was accompanied by parking restrictions and increased charges in the city centre. In the nine years following its introduction the share of cars has risen from 42 per cent of the trips to 48 per cent. The National Audit Office of Estonia found the policy did not meet its goal of reducing car use and has instead recommended the local infrastructure department investigate ways to improve the bus system by targeting the needs of car users to incentivise mode shift.

Dunkirk, France

Population: 202,332


Introduction: 2018

Operation and outcome: The policy was combined with a significant improvement in bus services. The number of lines was increased from 10 to 17, and the fleet expanded from 100 to 140 buses. Half of all passengers said they subsequently used public transport instead of cars and 10 per cent no longer have a car or decided not to buy a new or second car. Almost 40 per cent mentioned the increased efficiency and reliability of the network as the reason for using public transport more often.

Frýdek-Místek, Czech Republic

Population: 57,000

Introduction: 2011

Operation and outcome: The introduction was combined with an increase in fleet capacity and modernisation of the service. Passengers increased from 3.8 million in 2010 to 6.9 million in 2017. However, many trips are for only three stops which previously would have been made walking. Of the new passengers, previous public transport users account for 58 per cent, drivers 20 per cent and others 21 per cent.

Hasselt, Belgium

Population: 73,000

Introduction: 1997. It was discontinued in 2014.

Operation and outcome: Bus lines and frequency were increased and traffic capacity and parking restrictions introduced. Bus use increased by 700 per cent, 63 per cent of additional trips were by existing bus users, 16 per cent car users, 12 per cent bicycle users and 9 per cent walkers. The scheme was dropped in 2014 after a change in political leadership and issues with rising costs. However, it retained 75 per cent of passengers on weekdays and 67 per cent on weekends. Occupancy rates dropped on short-distance routes.


Population: 614,000

Introduction: 2020

Operation and outcome: In 2019, Luxembourg had the highest number of cars per person in the EU. The policy was accompanied by an improvement in public transport services, which previously had a poor reputation. There have been suggestions the use of trams is increasing, but the recent date of implementation and the impact of Covid-19 make it difficult to analyse. Initial evidence suggests the policy has failed to curb congestion. In May 2022, congestion on the roads was at the same levels or higher than it was for the same month in 2019.

Aubagne and Etoile, France

Population: 48,725

Introduction: 2009

Operation and outcome: This is considered one of the most successful implementations of free fares. Fare revenue was less than 9 per cent of the bus budget before the implementation and its loss was paid for by a tax increase from 0.6 per cent to 1 per cent on companies with more than 11 employees, which also enabled the modernisation of the network. Passenger numbers increased by 138 per cent by 2011. Half previously used cars, 20 per cent cycled, and 10 per cent walked. Some 63 per cent of trips generated by fare abolition otherwise would have been taken by a private motorised vehicle.

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly

Olivia Kelly is Dublin Editor of The Irish Times