Could free bus travel be the solution to our air quality woes?

The government should make bus travel free to tackle air pollution in towns and cities, according to new research.

Friends of the Earth, along with think-tank Transport for Quality of Life have today (February 5) released a new study that argues there must be a ‘radical re-imagining’ of transport which would reduce traffic and improve air quality.

Mike Childs, head of research at Friends of the Earth, said: ‘It’s an idea whose time has well and truly arrived. Free bus travel for the under 30’s at first, before widening the scheme, would make for more livable cities and cut damaging greenhouse gas emissions.’

The charity says free bus travel would cost £3bn a year with the study arguing, ‘we need to move away from the narrow idea that funding for public transport can only come from fares and government grants, and explore ways that local authorities could also raise funding locally.’

Free bus travel is available in around 100 towns and cities worldwide, including more than 30 in the USA and 20 in France. In the USA, this is typically in small towns or tourism areas, with bus services costs met through local sales taxes, payroll taxes or visitor charges. Dunkerque is the biggest town in France to introduce free bus travel, with 90,000 residents.

The bus network in the UK is currently deregulated with decisions about where and when to run services are made by individual operators, which the study argues is based primarily on criteria related to profitability rather than on environmental, social or public interest issues.

It says there’s no ‘guiding mind’ to oversee the planning, management and delivery of public transport services across a whole town or city and its surrounding suburbs and villages.

This, they say, makes it far less likely that a comprehensive network of services will be offered, and makes it extremely complex to coordinate timetables and services across all public transport modes, which wastes money and means more people choose to use their cars and will ultimately lead to free bus travel.

If regulated bus and tram networks are introduced in Combined Authority areas, it’ll become possible to provide ‘coordinated, comprehensive bus and tram networks,’ with London-style simple integrated ticketing, for 15.2 million people, or over a quarter of the English population.

Mike Childs added: ‘Dozens of cities across the world offer some form of free public transport. It would cost around £3bn a year but this is a fraction of the money spent on roads. Three times more journeys are by bus than train and they are the main means of transport for the car-less quarter of the population.

‘What we are seeing instead is bus fares rising 75% over the last 15 years, and over 3,300 services reduced or removed since 2010 in England and Wales.’

Responding, a DfT spokesperson said: ‘As set out in our Road to Zero Strategy, the government’s ambition is for all new cars and vans to be effectively zero emission by 2040. We are investing £1.5bn to make this happen.

‘We also support bus travel through £250m every year, as well as a further £1bn for the free bus pass scheme, paving the way to a more sustainable future.’