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This winter the government introduced a price cap of £2 on single bus fares to help with its cost of living crisis. At standard rates, a youngster’s first hour’s wage would only just cover the price of their daily return bus commute, so this support is welcome. The scheme expires at the end of June 2023, so chop-chop to the nearest Southern Vectis bus if you want to savour a subsidised journey.
Never mind a temporary two quid ticket though; many of you are already taken for a free ride under the English National Concessionary Bus Fare Scheme. So, having established the principle that some are bestowed with permanent free bus travel, then why not everyone?
I’ve been robustly informed that free public transport for all won’t work for two reasons: firstly, there are not enough routes/frequent buses to serve the nation’s boondocks, and “how will the bus companies make money?”
We humans created the systems with which we navigate our lives: religion, politics, capitalism – and we can un-make them at the click of our fingers if we choose to, just as the Thatcher Government clicked its fingers in the 1980s, enabling the deregulation of England’s buses. The effect of this was to have increased commercial competition for popular, mostly urban, journeys; so far so good – for both users and shareholders.
The flipside was the rapid withering of vital rural services which, up till then, had been supported by the income from the profitable routes, plus subsidies. Grubbed-up bus stops, along with (requisite) increased car usage, understandably led to a decline in bus patronage.
Yet, if we wish to, we can click our magic fingers and rebuild the bus – and train – networks. The finance is there, so perhaps it is simply a matter of changing political mindset. Maybe public transport is seen as loss-making because it charges for trips. If you take money out of the equation by making buses free – and remember, we have already established this principle with concessionary bus passes which subsidise journeys for swathes of the population – suddenly services can’t ‘lose’ money; buses and other public transport simply costs money – the same as roads, defence and other favoured budgetary money pits.
In Luxembourg trams, trains, and buses are free to use. Locals have been able to travel without charge in Estonia’s capital Tallinn since 2013. Early last year, Scotland implemented free bus travel for anyone under twenty-two years old.
Whether free public transport can truly work in rural areas is open for debate – but it used to. In order to reduce car dependency (for reasons you all know about; even you at the back in the tin-foil hat), we need to have a robust, reliable and attractive alternative. It must be not only at least as convenient as our private cars, but cheaper – nay, free. Hey, we could even reinstate the Island’s railways if we were truly committed to a sustainable future. Do we want a gravy train for shareholders, or free rides for all?