Minister Eamon Ryan recently said that the introduction of Fare Free Public Transport (FFPT) would result in an increase in unnecessary journeys. An Ernst & Young report was then wheeled out to give support to the claim that FFPT would not result in a major reduction in car usage. Bríd Smith dismantles the report and the ideology behind it.
A report commissioned by the National Transport Authority (NTA) has been used by Eamon Ryan, the Green Party and a host of academics to discredit the idea of free public transport. In the words of Eamon Ryan, such a policy would only result in increased “useless” and “unnecessary journeys”. A popular and growing campaign globally which is supported widely by environmental and social justice groups elsewhere has been dismissed here by groups that profess concern for climate action and social justice.
The report’s findings must also be challenged as they are deeply flawed, resting on neoliberal economic dogma and dubious predictions of future behaviours.
The report claims that fare-free public transport (FFPT) would only result in a 1% decline in car usage, and worse, would lure people who currently walk or cycle into using free public transport. These are the “unnecessary “ journeys that Ryan bemoaned. The idea that low-paid workers or commuters might have access to free public transport and forgo their walks or cycles is a nightmare for the Green Minister.
Worse still, according the report, FFPT would result in an increase in absenteeism, ill health, and anti-social activities. It would harm private bus operators and make collecting data on transport trends impossible. If the authors had more time, they might have found a link between FFPT and the war in Ukraine or the death of Elvis.
They based these findings on a review of the “economic literature”, the use of “regional transport models” and large amounts of unsupported assertions. The report starts off by seeing FFPT as beneficial ONLY if it moves large numbers of car users to public transport; it largely ignores any other benefit, or the social and public good such a policy might bring. Its remit guarantees its finding and preordains the negative dismissal of FFPT. By counterposing better services with fare-free services and concentrating only on car users’ likely behaviour, the report is able to deliver the denunciation of FFPT that Ryan and Co are looking for.
The modellers used a “Marginal External Costs approach”. Marginal cost is a mainstream economic tool aimed at quantifying benefits and costs based on people’s willingness to pay or alter behaviour. Like most mainstream economic modelling tools, it has very narrow limits. Tellingly, while media reports concentrated on the low numbers shifting from cars, the report still found that even so the “external benefits of reduced car use only outweigh the disbenefits of reduced active travel by approximately €15.3m per annum in this strategic economic assessment” i.e., even from their own purely economic analysis, there are €15 million a year in external benefits from a FFPT policy.
The report relies on several case studies of other cities which show the same trend; the majority of new public transport users come from existing cyclists or walkers, and a smaller percentage comes from existing car users. Oddly, all of these studies found much larger beneficial results than the 1% figure predicted here in Ireland. Hilariously, one city studied didn’t actually introduce FFPT, another did so for only a month to commemorate an anniversary of an Olympic event, and all others had overwhelmingly positive feedback on the move to FFPT.
A number didn’t have figures on shifts from cars but did record large numbers moving to FFPT. One French town saw 50% of new usersmove from their cars, 20% in a Czech town, 16% in a Belgium town and in Dunkirk 50% of new users said they left their car behind for trips.
So why is Ireland’s figure so low?
How, then, did they come up with the paltry figure of 1%?
Chiefly, they were able to get such a low figure by running simulated modelling based on current trends across the country where public transport is mainly poor or non-existent. Most car users don’t have access to public transport alternatives, so making it free won’t change their car use. Therefore, the report could claim with a straight face that free public transport is bad.
It ran various scenarios based on current NTA regional models of transport; these are based on five regions; East, South East, South West, Mid West, and West. They then ran various simulations of transport patterns based on slightly improving existing public transport capacity in some areas or leaving the current capacity as is. This is how they discovered a small 1% decline in car usage. Given the methods used, it’s hardly surprising. In most of the regions studied, many simply do not have access to a viable public transport alternative. Making it free isn’t going to alter most car users’ habits.
Even in the east and Dublin region, many still rely on the car because of the way public transport funnels most journeys into the city, meaning if you want to get from Swords to Tallaght, you face multiple changes and long trips if you use public transport. Leaving the current capacity, reach and frequency of buses and trains unchanged is clearly going to limit the impact of free transport in encouraging people out of cars. The report did look at one scenario where increased bus services were provided to cope with demand. It didn’t look at this scenario with trains or trams as this was seen to take too long to provide the rolling stock necessary. Hence, if you just get rid of fares, and only provide limited increased bus capacity, you find you don’t get millions of car users leaving their car behind. This is hardly news.
Why is the report important?
When a government or state agency wants an opinion to confirm their preferred policy they often hire consultants to provide an “independent” report for them. The remit or scope of the report will nearly guarantee the findings. Often the consultants will be one of the Big 4: KPMG, PWC, Deloitte or EY.
You may remember EY from their previous sterling work. They gave Anglo Irish Bank a clean bill of health in an audit before the crash in 2008. This year the firm agreed to pay “a multimillion-euro amount to settle a long-running case over its failure to uncover the habit of the lender’s former chairman, Seán Fitzpatrick, of moving loans off its balance sheet at the end of accounting periods before the financial crash”. An easy thing to miss in fairness, as it amounted to only €7 billion.
This and a litany of other high-profile scandals have not deterred them from proffering advice to Governments on tough issues. The NTA, like Minister Ryan, did not support fare-free transport anyway, so the report was gleefully used to rubbish the idea and seen as the last word by learned academics and climate campaigners who clearly forgot the history of the big four accounting firms.
The report and its underlying assumptions are highly misleading. Campaigners for FFPT never said the benefits would be a sudden massive reduction in car use or CO2 emissions. We have always said that FFPT had to be introduced with the widespread provision of viable and frequent public transport, especially in rural areas. The report counterposes the idea of FFPT with improvements in capacity frequency etc. It’s a false narrative.
Fare Free Public Transport is Essential
However, that said there is every reason to believe that FFPT, even under current circumstances is likely to see larger benefits than the report suggests. Ireland, especially Dublin, has one of the highest costs for public transport users, even after the recent 20% cut in fares is taken into account
Eliminating fares would be a huge benefit for hundreds of thousands of hard pressed workers and signal the state was serious about real climate action.
In the case studies the report looked at, the declines in car usage were much larger than 1%, especially in cities and regions that improved capacity and reach at the same time. Moreover, the benefits societally were much more obvious. For low-income workers, students and minorities the move was a major plus. Similarly, when free transport was introduced in Ireland in the 1960s for older persons it made a huge difference to people’s lives, reducing isolation and allowing for greater use of the city and towns and connectivity generally.
The potential of FFPT to change the debate around climate action cannot be modelled by the likes of EY using their mainstream economic modelling because it is utterly beyond them, or indeed the average middle-class Greens’ understanding. Workers are presented with climate as a disaster that requires personal sacrifices from them; more carbon taxes, and more demands for personal behavioural changes. Many want to act but also see the hypocrisy of what’s being demanded; of massive profiteering by fossil fuel corporations allied with taxes on them and an insistence on personal behavioural changes that make little sense.
Green Neoliberalism Has Failed
It is hardly any wonder that denialism and scepticism are growing under the watch of such Green policies that completely ignore the class impact of climate policies like carbon taxes etc. Workers see the hypocrisy and failure of many climate policies clearly. Campaigns for FFPT can change the narrative around climate policy and show how radical action that could reduce emissions can also improve people’s lives.
While the cost of fare free transport at €540 million year is seen as a waste of money, the state has no issue effectively subsidising the aviation industry by leaving jet kerosene exempt from tax at a cost of €600 million a year. Free fares for workers are labelled a waste of money unless they leave their cars behind, but congestion charges and increased tolls are welcomed. In 2021 the state could hand over €50 million to the wealthy to buy new EVs, each costing over €40,000 each. Some €13 million of that figure went to new EV cars worth over €60,000 a piece. While Ryan and Co. see this as a necessary incentive, providing free and frequent public transport is a non-runner for them and instead requires an expensive report to discredit it on narrow and limited grounds.
Build the Fight for FFPT
In truth, the campaign for FFPT should be re-energised by this report, and we should renew our calls for it. It is the future if we are serious about climate action and winning workers and working-class communities to real climate measures that can work. A million EVs on the roads or a future of private mobility cannot reduce transport emissions. As Ryan and Co fail abysmally to reduce that state’s emissions and remain the playthings of corporations and capital, it is essential that socialists champion climate policies that can connect with workers and ordinary people. Fare-free transport is one such policy.
Greens will increasingly present climate action as a set of technical solutions based on new technology that requires punishment for ordinary people who fail to get on board. They will never connect capitalism and its endless drive for expansion and profits as a cause of the crisis. The class bias and blindness of most of the Greens are the biggest threat to the climate movement in the coming years. In Ryan’s world, reducing active travel journeys by individuals (cycling or walking ) is more damaging to climate action than corporations’ continued exploration and use of oil and gas reserves or of global corporations running massive data centres on gas fired generators.
The EY report is just the tip of an iceberg. The left must offer a real alternative to the Greens.