The Case for Free Public Transport

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) is a proud advocate of a world-class, fare-free public transport system for Scotland.

Transport has undergone enormous changes in recent decades, both in Scotland and across the world. Some have been cyclical: in Scotland’s capital, trams were built, dismantled, and then reintroduced. In other areas, we have seen consistent trends like the steady deregulation and privatization of services, which has left Edinburgh as the sole city in Scotland with a municipal bus operator.

Rail fares across the UK have soared in comparison to those of our European neighbours, and Scottish transport contracts go out to tender in a farcical franchise system whereby public sector companies in other countries can bid for control while those in Scotland are effectively barred.

Scotland, the country which gave the world the pedal bicycle and the pneumatic tyre, now has a public transport network which is broadly unfit for purpose.

Massive changes have to be made to ensure that our public transport network is not only of a standard befitting the people of Scotland, but one that is adapted to our environmental and economic needs – challenging climate change while connecting communities and creating jobs through enhanced mobility.

“We call unashamedly for the integration of services – whether bus, rail, ferry, underground or tram – under publicly-owned and democratically-run operators.”

The Scottish Socialist Party is brave enough to identify these changes. We call unashamedly for the integration of services – whether bus, rail, ferry, underground or tram – under publicly-owned and democratically-run operators.

But the bravest step we can take as a nation to totally transform the way we travel is to support the international movement for free public transport and become pioneers of true freedom of movement for working class people.

There is a strong economic, social, and environmental case for adopting this policy throughout the country. There is also precedent from successful fare-free public transport schemes in parts of France, Germany, Belgium, and Estonia as well as far-flung cities in China and the United States. [Ed.: see, and] We have evidence of the policy’s affordability and benefit.

I would put to sceptics that the prospect of free healthcare was once unthinkable. With the creation of NHS Scotland in 1948, hundreds of thousands of people gained access to essential medical care for the first time; the positive impact on Scottish society has been immense. The threat of privatization and marketization is a terrifying prospect for many.

In the same spirit that the NHS was created over half a century ago, we can come together to build a public transport system that works for everyone. We can tackle poverty and social exclusion by extending access across urban and rural Scotland; this will be a financial relief for workers, parents and carers on low incomes, and make it even easier for families to switch from road trips to more eco-friendly bus rides and train journeys.

Building free transport links between rural communities even brings forward the possibility of economic regeneration in the Highlands, the Scottish Borders, and rural Fife, where greater interconnectivity and public investment could instigate growth and begin to reverse the exodus of young people from small towns and villages.

Free transport is neither easy nor cheap, nor can it alone transform Scotland. However, as part of a comprehensive socialist strategy, it can radically change the conditions of Scottish workers and help realise the full potential of totally under-utilized modes of transport.

The SSP has a good track record of winning others to our ideas. We championed free prescriptions in Holyrood and led the broad-based campaign to tackle poverty through the provision free school meals. We are committed supporters of universalism and pioneered many policies which were later taken up by the mainstream parties.

Ambition and Vision

Free transport is yet another distinctive SSP policy with ambition, vision and a firm footing in the needs and aspirations of Scotland. It is a policy whose implementation is not only possible, but increasingly necessary – addressing the pressing ecological crisis facing the world as well as the acute issues of poverty and exclusion at home.

These are among the reasons why free transport proposals are becoming more and more popular across Europe. Many in Scotland point to more affordable and efficient public transport systems in countries like Germany to highlight the shortcomings of our own – but to seek merely to emulate them is to limit our ambition, as proven by the spirited HVV umsonst! campaigners now pushing to scrap fares in Germany’s second-largest city.

In Sweden, anarchist initiative takes a particularly brazen approach to free transport campaigning by encouraging members of the public to leap ticket barriers, while operating a shared pool of funds to pay off any subsequent fines for its members.

Even in Scotland, understanding and appetite for the policy is slowly building. Scottish Green activists came close to persuading the rest of their party to back the progressive policy when it was revisited at their 2014 party conference.

It is often easier in politics to identify problems than solutions. For the SSP, free transport is a valuable idea that carries great potential as an innovative solution to an intersection of problems. For this reason, it is a policy that socialists will develop and promote further in the run-up to next year’s Scottish Parliament election. •

Connor Beaton is the branch organizer of Dundee Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). He serves on the SSP’s Executive Committee.

Nine Points Arguing the Case for Free Public Transport

  • Free fares would be the biggest single pro-environment policy enacted by any national government anywhere on the planet, dramatically slashing car use and CO2 emissions.
  • Free fares would be the biggest anti-poverty, pro-social inclusion policy enacted in Scotland, or anywhere else in the UK. It is mainly people on low incomes who rely on public transport
  • Free fares would cut the number of road accidents, reducing human suffering and relieving pressure on the NHS and the emergency services. The Scottish Executive estimates that road accidents cost £1.4-billion a year to the Scottish economy. (On an average day in Scotland there is one fatal road accident; another 8-10 involving serious injury; and 250-300 minor accidents. The vast majority involve cars.)
  • Free fares would be help to reduce the levels of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, which have risen steeply in line with the expansion of road traffic
  • Free fares would potentially increase the spending power of over a million workers by between £40 and £100 a month, boosting the overall economy.
  • Free fares would increase business efficiency and productivity: the CBI estimates that traffic congestion costs business across Britain between £15 and £20-billion a year.
  • Free fares would be a major tourist attraction, bringing hundreds of millions of pounds into the Scottish economy every year from increased visitor numbers. An increase in tourism of just 20 per cent would bring an extra £1-billion into the Scottish economy.
  • Free fares would attract worldwide support, especially from the global environmental movement, and would bring pressure to bear on governments throughout Europe and the wider world to adopt a similar policy.
  • Free fares would reduce Scotland’s reliance on depleting oil reserves; 67 per cent of all oil produced globally is used for transport.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In the early 1980s, the Greater London Council under Ken Livingston slashed fares and began to move towards free public transport. The policy was backed by 71 per cent of Londoners, but was destroyed by the Thatcher government and the Law Lords, backed by the car, haulage and oil industries.

Within a year, ticket prices in London had doubled, car journeys had rocketed and there was an extra 6000 accidents on the city’s roads. A similar policy in South Yorkshire under David Blunkett was similarly torpedoed.

That was before global warming and the dangers of greenhouse gases became widely accepted by scientists. Twenty years on, our towns and cities are heading towards permanent gridlock and scientists are pressing the panic buttons. And the idea of free public transport is starting to make a comeback.

In the Belgian city of Hasselt, which covers an area double the size of Dundee, congestion was eliminated in the late 1980s after the introduction of a totally free public transport system. Within a year, bus passenger journeys rose by 870 per cent and have now increased by over 1000 per cent. In dismal contrast, the Scottish Executive has set a target for an annual increase of one per cent in bus journeys and two per cent in rail journeys.

The Danish government has commissioned a research group to examine the feasibility of a free public transport system (Copenhagen Post November 22, 2006).

The Melbourne Age newspaper, edited by Andrew Jaspan (a former editor of the Sunday Herald, The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday) has called for state-wide free bus travel in Victoria (“A radical idea,” The Age, May 5, 2006).

Matthew Parrish, a Tory MP under Margaret Thatcher, who played a key role in destroying South Yorkshire’s cheap fares policy, now admits he was wrong and has called for London-wide free bus travel: “I was wrong. I have changed my mind… Never mind the ideology, it just makes sense.” (“It’s big, it’s red, and it’s free – and it will save London,” The Times, May 8, 2003).

Visit Scotland (formerly the Scottish Tourist Board) recently published a report which set out the policy implications of global warming by 2015: “In order to reduce dependency upon the car, we will see a number of measures to move people onto public transport. These will include free public transport for all in Scotland, whether this is buses or trains”. (Visit Scotland report: Tomorrow’s World, May 2006). •

Funding Free Public Transport

This article is a brief summary of the startup and running costs, of implementing the Scottish Socialist Party’s flagship free public transport policy.

Cost of Public Ownership

The Glasgow Underground and Lothian Buses are already in the public sector, though they would need to be re-organized.

The three major targets for public ownership would be First Bus, Stagecoach and ScotRail. This would bring the main transport providers into social ownership.

A big chunk of the transport infrastructure is already publicly-owned and funded, including bus stations, bus shelters, railway stations and the rail track.

However, the buses run by First and Stagecoach would have to be purchased and the workforce transferred to Scotland’s local authorities.

As a rough gauge, the publicly-owned Scottish bus industry was sold in the mid-1990s for just over £200-million (the Scottish Bus Group for £96-million and Strathclyde Buses for £110-million).

Taking into account inflation, investment in buses etc, it would be reasonable to estimate that the cost of bringing the major bus companies into public ownership would be around £300-million (it could be anticipated that bus reregulation would lead to a fall in the value and profitability of the private bus companies).

The ScotRail franchise is due for implicit renewal in 2020. As representatives of the rail unions pointed at the recent Scottish Labour conference, ScotRail could be brought back into the public sector at zero cost. The Scottish Government already subsidises ScotRail to the tune of £200-million a year, even although the franchise is now a profitable concern.

Cost of Expansion to Cope with Increased Demand

Although extra services would be required, this would not be a straightforward equation in line with extra passenger numbers, because many buses and trains run with spare capacity, especially during off peak hours.

There is also substantial duplication and inefficiency arising from bus deregulation; a regulated, planned and integrated transport system would make more effective use of existing resources.

Nonetheless, in order to move vast numbers out of their cars and onto buses, trains and ferries, it will be necessary to accompany a free fares policy with a sizeable expansion of transport provision, especially in rural areas and in cities during peak hours.

It is impossible at this stage to quantify how much that would require, but as a starting point, we would suggest making available an extra £200-million for capital spending (on top of the costs of establishing a publicly-owned and integrated transport system).

An increase in staffing of 50 per cent (eg bus drivers, railworkers etc ) would cost around £250-million a year.

Total estimated costs (on top of existing public transport budget):

TOTAL CAPITAL COSTS – £500-million

(The running cost takes into account savings of over £50-million a year profit from FirstBus, Stagecoach and ScotRail)

Projected Savings

Road accident reduction.
The Scottish Government estimate the annual costs of road accidents in Scotland at £1.4-billion (2003). By slashing road traffic, the toll of death, injury and damage could be reduced substantially, with financial savings to the NHS, business and insurance companies of hundreds of millions of pounds a year.

Traffic congestion reduction.
The business organization, the CBI, estimates that across the UK traffic congestion costs £15 to 20-billion a year. Even allowing for Scotland’s less densely concentrated population, it is likely that free fares would save business up to £1-billion a year.

Road maintenance savings.
In 2007-2008, the Scottish Government will spend almost £900-million on motorways and trunk roads, including maintenance, capital projects and depreciation. Local authorities will spend another £300-million on local road maintenance. There is on top of that a backlog of £1.6-billion of local road repairs outstanding. A substantial reduction in road traffic could save hundreds of millions of pounds annually in road maintenance and repair.

It is likely that an ambitious free transport policy backed up by expansion of services could generate savings to the public sector from roads maintenance and the NHS of anything between £300-million and £500-million.

By reducing congestion and road accidents, it could also save business up to £1-billion, based on the CBI’s own figures. That means a total saving to the Scottish economy of between of up to £1.5-billion annually.

It could also generate further income from extra tourism, and from the economic boost that would be achieved by increasing the spending power of millions of workers.

While substantial sources of funding would be required to establish and run an expanded, integrated, free public transport system it would, in overall terms, be to the advantage rather than to the detriment of the Scottish economy.

Sources of funding

Under Devolution

Even within the constraints imposed by devolution, there are various ways of funding a free public transport system.

Capital costs can be raised by cancelling, scaling down or postponing at least some of the highly expensive transport projects promoted by the Scottish Government, including the high speed rail link between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament can also transfer funding from the roads budget to the public transport budget.

Holyrood also has powers over the basic rate of income tax of up to three pence in the pound.

Because most of a new public transport system would come under the control of local authorities (and groups of local authorities), any funding for public transport would be designated a supplementary local tax, and therefore would fall within the powers devolved to Holyrood. This provides Holyrood with a range of fund-raising options.

Possible funding options

  • Under an income-based local tax, such as the SSP’s proposed Scottish Service Tax, bands could be adjusted accordingly to raise the extra money in a progressive fashion with the rich paying more and the poor paying less.
  • The parliament has tax-varying power of up to 3 pence on basic rate income tax. A one per cent increase in income tax would generate at least £300-million a year. By imposing a supplementary local transport tax of three pence for those earning over £30,000 a year, an additional £300-million would be raised. A further £300-million could be raised by increasing the uniform business rate.
  • An alternative and straightforward way of financing free public transport would be to levy a ‘transport payroll tax’ on all businesses with more than 10 employees. Such a tax is used widely in France to fund public transport. The Paris Metro, rail and bus system, for example is largely funded through a payroll tax of 2.2 per cent, which generates well over two billion euros a year.
  • The tax is set as a percentage of the total wage bill; and is paid by the employer. To raise around £800-million, Scotland would need to set the tax at around 2.5 per cent, applicable to all companies in the private sector with ten employees or more.
  • This transport payroll tax could be offset against Corporation Tax, which is paid to the UK exchequer, effectively transferring up to 30 per cent of the costs to Westminter (ie 200-240-million).
  • Revenue could also be raised by imposing a special tax on HGV lorries towards the costs of road repairs and maintenance. The average juggernaut inflicts 50,000 times the road damage caused by a car. This HGV mileage tax would be based on annual mileage as registered on tacographs and would offset the roads budget, allowing tens of millions to be reallocated towards the cost of an expanded free public transport system.

Under Independence
Within an independent Scotland, the funding of a free transport initiative would be straightforward.

There would be a range of options available, including oil revenues (the SSP supports extra taxation on oil profits and, ultimately, public ownership of the oil industry).

Hundreds of millions could also be generated through higher corporate taxation and/or a rise in the top rate of income tax.

And, by reducing per capita Scottish defence spending to around the level of the Republic of Ireland, an additional £2-billion would be available for public services and wealth redistribution (Scotland’s share of the bloated UK defence budget is around £3-billion; the Republic of Ireland, which has population of four million, spends just £700-million on defence). •

These articles first published on the website.