Does free public transport make a difference?

As politicians gear up for election promises, here’s one to listen for, a favourite across the political spectrum but especially the left.
So does free = more ridership? The answer: yes, sometimes, but not always.


Last month Auckland celebrated 100 million trips on its public transport with a free-fare day. It was extremely popular, with 65% more people on foot in the city centre than normally.

by Twitter user @urbanistfromwhk. Check out #AklfreePT for some cool stories

In Wellington, longtime public transport money-monitor Tony Randle got coverage of his contention that Wellington city residents subsidise other regional residents’ public transport.

Nationwide, there’s a review of Public Transport Operating Model, which obliges public transport to operate under certain commercial conditions such as taking a certain amount in fees.

So it’s a good time to ask:

Does making public transport free actually make a difference – i.e. get more people using it?

Here’s a good explanation – even if you’re not on Twitter you can see it, so click the embedded tweet below. This thread has really interesting highlights of the results from making public transport free, like mobility for the old and the young. But if you’re wanting to get people currently driving to choose PT instead, free ain’t enough.


Further reading:


Image credit: Rob Kitchin / Stuff.co.nz

3 comments on “Does free public transport make a difference?”

  • tom says:

    I think the question would be more on the line of “where should funding for public transport come from”. Should the rider pay directly, or should that cost be met by other funding sources. However you cut it, somebody has to pay, somehow.

    Given the GW website has been down for like a week, I cant find the exact numbers, but the wellington PT opex is probably in the order of $150m-$300m PA, of which about 30%-50% is funded by farebox recovery. So, where would that shortfall come from? General Tax? Could argue that higher PT reduces the burden on NZTA for more highways. Rates? Maybe, but can that be sustained?

  • Tony Randle says:

    This is a complex issue.

    I would start by making two points:
    Firstly, before we talk about “who benefits”, we need to recognize there are two different benefit groups.

    The first group are those who do not have the option of driving. Most such PT users are either vulnerable or disadvantaged or both (children, elderly, disabled, sick, students and poor). Most in our society support subsidizing these users esp to through all day bus services that often have low patronage but whose users are very dependent on it.

    Unfortunately the second group (partially because they have a much stronger voice) are PT users who don’t drive as a matter of choice. This second group are subsidized because, it is argued, it is cheaper & better than building more roads and car parks. That car drivers also benefit from reduced congestion from those that switch to PT is part of the argument but, IMO, a majority of car drivers probably cannot use any other mode.

    In other words, there are two 1/2 groups who benefit from PT and the benefits are different.

    My second point, which is the reason for the DomPost story is, before discussing who SHOULD pay for PT, let’s be clear who DOES pay. This is the starting point for any discussion on whether to make PT cheaper or even free.

  • Glenn Fitzgerald says:

    The Road (Rail) towards Free Public Transport 2019.

    Stated Aim :- To migrate single use ICE car drivers to PT over 5 years

    To slowly move people out of their cars and onto Public transport would need several different methods.

    1. A reduction in fairs linked to more cost on Cars. Something like 20% cut every year over 5 years, or even faster cuts if the recovery methods are in place sooner.

    2. An ever increasing congestion tax. This should be applied to Highways as well as city areas, Lower Hutt should be included. Exceptions should allow Full Electric cars to be exempt, and Hybrids to only pay 50% of a petrol car.  Commercial exemptions should only be a maximum of
    50%, except if full electric.  There is an ever increasing number of full electric cars and commercial Vehicles.

    3. An increasing petrol tax that will also have the by product of making electric cars more popular.
    If this was marketed as going towards free public transport, it would be accepted better.

    4. NZTA funding of 20 to 30% of the total PT budget. NZTA policy needs to be actively supporting this migration, as it will result in less use of roads.

    5. A fee  for parking in “Park & ride” car parks, paid using the same smart ticket used for the trains. This is to encourage commuters to walk or cycle to the station.

    Version 1.1 20 July, 2019, Glenn Fitzgerald.

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