Half of all bus passengers in Northern Ireland ride for free…

An interesting story from Gary McDonald in today’s Irish News. From the story:

Of the 60.6 million people using Translink’s Ulsterbus, Goldliner or Metro/Glider services in the 12 months to March , just 31.2 million paid a full fare, bringing in receipts of £84 million for the operators.

So that left 29.4 million people using some sort of free/subsidised travel card such as the 60+ Smart Pass.

But it was a different story on the railways though, where of 12.9 million people taking the train, some 10.1m paid full fare and just 2.8m travelled free.

Yet despite the numbers using free services, Translink raked in £172 million in fares over the year, made up of £84.1m on buses, £49.5m on railways and £38.4 on the Metro/Glider services.

It should be noted that the Department for Infrastructure reimburses Translink for all these ‘free’ journeys.

How best to interpret these stats?

The obvious one is that giving people something for free means they use it more. Is the conclusion you draw that if we want more people to use public transport, why not make it free?

Or you could have something like buses are free for everyone after 9:30.

I have always been uncomfortable with over 60s getting free travel. This age group tends to be the richest in society. Why should a 61-year-old solicitor or accountant be able to travel to work for free, whereas some poor, unemployed 25-year-old single parent on a housing estate has to stump up the cash to make the same journey? Should it be means-tested so you need to be on benefits to avail of free travel? Or would the cost of administering such a scheme outweigh any cost savings?

There are merits to making public transport free for everyone:

– Increased ridership – Eliminating fares could encourage more people to use public transit instead of driving. This could help reduce traffic congestion and emissions.

– Greater accessibility – Free public transit would make it easier for low-income individuals to get around and access jobs, services, etc. This could promote equity and social mobility.

– Cost savings – Some studies have suggested that the costs of enforcing fare collection could potentially exceed the revenue gained from fares. Removing fares eliminates these enforcement costs.

– Faster boarding – Allowing passengers to board without paying could help reduce dwell time at stops and make routes more efficient.

– Simpler system – Having no fares eliminates the need for ticketing systems, less administration etc. This reduces infrastructure costs.

– Promotes tourism – Free transit could make it easier for visitors to navigate a city without a car.

– Social good – Free public transit aligns with a view of transit as a public service that should be accessible to all, rather than a business.

– Boost economy – more people going out to shops, nights out etc boosts the economy generally.

– Better for the environment – fewer person car journeys means less pollution. Fewer cars on the road mean fewer traffic jams.

Some potential downsides:

– Lost revenue – Public transit agencies would lose a major source of funding previously collected from fares. Other sources would be needed to replace this funding.

– Strain on capacity – Higher ridership could strain existing capacity on buses, trains, etc. Upgrades could be needed.

– Potential overuse – Some critics argue free transit could encourage unnecessary trips that cause overcrowding.

The biggest issue could be abuse, especially with teenagers. Already the Glider is a ‘rolling youth club’ at times, with bored kids jumping off and on it and causing hassle for other passengers. Having everything free could make this problem worse or maybe if it was all free, the novelty would soon wear off, I don’t know.

Where it does get awkward is where it stops. If you make buses in Belfast free, do you also make Ulsterbus Journeys free? What about the trains and cross-border travel? Is it not better for society to have a full bus of people making a journey than a half-empty bus?

I think we need to experiment. Translink should make all bus services free in Belfast for one month and measure the impact. We will not know unless we try.

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