With new Government of India in place, it might be worthwhile to answer if fare-free public transport is a solution to improve the transport ridership prioritizing environment and to end the congestion. Fare-free public transport, a widely advocated policy for improving ridership, need to be assessed if it will or will not lead to free transport for all.
Fare-free public transport is defined as the transit services that require no passengers to pay for using a public transit vehicle. Worldwide, many cities in other continents and countries like Luxembourg offer free public transport systems with the objective to prioritize environment and end some traffic congestion.
In India, mass transit services had been offering free services for short duration or a day for promotional events lately. These events have witnessed drawing passengers enormously. For example, Amritsar Metrobus, Chennai Metro and Kochi Metro offered free services recently. While Amritsar Metrobus offered three months of free ridership after the inauguration of BRTS, Chennai offered three days of free services after opening last stretch of phase 1 network. Kochi Metro also offered free services for a day as part of 1st anniversary celebration in June 2018. In all the cases, the services have seen huge influx of passengers when compared to normal operations or the ridership declined as soon as the fares were introduced.
Does it mean the fares were unaffordable and passengers would like to enjoy free services? Can provision of fare-free public transport solve the issues of urban mobility? These are some of the key questions that may arise when we witness the sudden rise in passengers when provided free. While there could be many arguments for and against the fare-free public transport three key points always debated for fare-free public transport are discussed below:
1. Will it increase public transport use and reduce number of private vehicles?
As seen in all cases in India, free public transport drew passengers enormously, which rapidly declined while introducing fare. Amritsar BRTS witnessed 50% reduction in ridership after introducing fare2. Kochi metro on offering free ridership saw an increase in ridership by three times compared to a normal day. Worldwide, the provision of fare-free ridership saw an increase in ridership by about 10% to 200%1. In Tallinn, the largest experiment in fare-free public transport, after one year of introduction of the policy, public transport usage increased by 14%. Provision of free public transport will also attract new passengers to the system who were not using the system earlier as the fares were high. To conclude, we already do have proof from past experiences that fare-free public transport can increase the passenger ridership.
But an important question is, if the fare-free system can reduce the number of private vehicles. The car users are higher or middle-income group who would also be able to afford the public transport and has chosen personal travel choices. International case studies indicate that relatively a small percentage of the additional trips (from 5% to 30%) were made by people switching from other motorized modes and rest were citizens who were using non-motorized transport or already free services. So, will the provision of fare-free system reduce private vehicles and relieves congestion on road?
2. Public transport shall be considered as public good or not?
Provision of mobility is Government’s responsibility and the services can be used by everyone. Tax payers are already paying for health services, education, roads and the essential mobility provision shall also be provided free of cost is the main argument for fare-free system. The argument is that the car users would be penalized more for making the public transport free, by adding congestion pricing, parking charges etc. While penalizing car users is a better idea to make public transport free, it is equally important that such strategies are adopted to improve the service quality also, so that the public transport is able to attract more users.
Secondly, it is a human nature to consume what is not to be paid for and hence will reduce the attractiveness of the system. With more users on public transport systems, the utilization would increase as well as the needs for improved systems. This also increases the need for additional maintenance, security as well as sufficient rolling stock for increased demand, which will in-turn improves the public transport provision in the city.
3. How would it impact the transport service providers?
Fare box revenue form majority share in the earnings of the operators. Provision of fare-free public transport would increase burden on Government for revenue support and capital investment. The Government support for public transport systems to meet the operational expenses are constantly dwindling with competing demand on the general exchequer. Thus, the transport service providers are finding it difficult to obtain Government support to meet the current default itself. So, in the case of fare-free public transport, the operators would have to increase their dependency on Government for subsidies to replace the entire fare-box. At the same time, although public subsidy would increase, the subsidy required per passenger drops significantly.
Therefore, three main arguments for each stakeholder of fare-free public transport has been discussed. However, the success of public transport system is on finding the common grounds between various revenue accruals and compensation, fare revenue, service obligations, commercial revenue etc. Appreciating that fare-free public transport is a welcoming policy for improving public transport patronage, it is equally important to evaluate the sustainability of service providers and impact on overall mobility goals by such a policy as well.
 TCRP Synthesis 101; Implementation and Outcomes of Fare Free Transit Systems, 2012.
 The prospects of fare-free public transport: evidence from Tallinn, Oded Cats, Yusak O Susilo, Delft University, April 2016