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The free public transport debate

As States like Tamil Nadu and Punjab adopt this route, we take a look at the pros and cons

In March 2020, Luxembourg became the first country in the world to make public transport free for its residents and tourists. The new rule allows everyone to board all modes of transport — buses, trains and trams — throughout the country without paying a fare. The concept of Fare-Free Public Transport (FFPT) isn’t new, with countries such as Australia and certain pockets of the US, among others, experimenting with it for many years. A few have the policy in play in particular states or districts, whereas others have rolled out the measure partially to certain sections of the population, such as the elderly, disabled, women and minors.

This year, Tamil Nadu joined this list when Chief Minister M.K. Stalin announced free travel for women on basic-fare government buses. Since transport corporations stand to lose ₹1,200 crore in revenue a year due to the move, the government sanctioned the sum as a subsidy. Around the same time, Punjab’s Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh launched free travel in all non-AC intra-state buses for women and girls across the State. These moves have been lauded, as they should be, as they are a step towards making public transport more accessible.

Women and girls form close to 50% of India’s urban population – yet they comprise only 19% of ‘other workers’ and 84% of their trips are by public, intermediate public, and non-motorised modes of transport (Census 2011). They are far more dependent on public transport than men and their travel patterns and timings are staggered, often combining multiple destinations in a single trip.

This is especially true for, say, domestic workers who travel to different areas in a single day, or women who drop/pick up children from school, alongside juggling shopping trips, paying bills, etc. For women from the poorer sections, making public transport free is a tremendous boost to mobility and accessibility.

Such policies, however, need to be tweaked continuously to become more inclusive, so that their effectiveness can be sustained. For starters, governments need to invest not just in cost-effective modes of transport for the public but must maintain them and ensure their continued usage. As highlighted in 2020: The Global Tipping Point for Transport, the sustainable transport magazine by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), over 2 billion people worldwide use the bus every day. ‘A fleet of buses can be purchased and deployed within months, and streets can be redesigned to prioritise bus services with measures as simple as paint, barricades, and enforcement’, the report states.

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So why isn’t India’s bus network stronger than ever? Even the Chennai Metro — which completed six years last month — continues to see low ridership, with many blaming high ticket fares and poor connectivity to the stations.

Thus, in addition to FFPT, State governments also need to seriously look into better connectivity for people to access public transportation like buses and the Metro. This becomes especially essential for vulnerable sections of the population, such as the disabled, elderly, etc. As has been proven in communities across the world, low ridership is directly related to the transport infrastructure provided by governments. Several policies and interventions find place on paper but are rarely implemented and followed up. In fact, free bus transport itself is of little use if buses are few in number, in poor shape, or inaccessible from residential zones.

There also needs to be parity in government subsidy programmes. In Delhi, for instance, subsidised bus travel is provided to all women in state-run and private buses, and the respective bus operator gets reimbursed by the government by demitting the zero tickets, as a report in Frontline explains. This way, the government is able to estimate how many women are using the scheme. But there is also the possibility of women who don’t use all the zero tickets in one month end up selling them to the private transport companies, which are then reimbursed for passengers who did not travel. This leakage can be plugged only through real-time checks, which will be prohibitively expensive, it states.

So, is the FFPT concept beneficial in the long run? Experts and economists have argued that it doesn’t work for several reasons. A story in The Conversation argues that free public transport is irrational and uneconomical because it generates ‘useless mobility’, which means people will move more simply because it’s free, increasing transport and subsidy costs as well as emissions.

This argument might not hold for India, whose lower income groups will benefit enormously by free commutes. The Conversation article also argues that free public transport converts only a miniscule section of car users to public transport, but this cannot be the target plan for India in any case. For this, our cities must consider other alternatives — such as steep congestion and parking charges, higher petrol taxes for private transport users, and steep driving licence fees. This might push commuters to public transport but not until it is accompanied by far better public transport infrastructure.

A fortnightly column on environmental sustainability and urban issues

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