Free bus travel – fanciful idea or radical ambition?

Pat Raffety shows how free bus travel can have immense economic and social advantages.

Richard Leonard’s keynote speech at the Scottish Labour party conference in March 2019 included a commitment to a Labour government introducing free bus travel across Scotland. Is this a fanciful idea or a radical ambition?

In 2017-2018, Scottish bus companies received £298m in subsidy from local and central Government, yet neither the Scottish Government nor travelling public have any real say on how, where or when buses are run. These decisions, ultimately, lie with the bus companies and as profit maximisers they will pick the profitable routes and timetables irrespective of the needs of the community, with the Scottish Government stepping in to subsidise the routes the bus companies don’t want.

Given the climate change challenge, there have been calls for parking levies and Low Emission Zones in our large cities to tackle this. Both have proved controversial, with some local authorities saying they will not implement a levy. It is proposed that the levy would be wholly met by employers, but as was the case in Nottingham, it can (and inevitably would) be passed on to employees. Our economy functions 24/7, yet currently bus timetables favour those living in an urban environment, working between 8.00 a.m. and 6 p.m. and off on weekends. Travel outwith these times is often sporadic or non-existent as is the case in many rural communities.

Yet more and more employment contracts require workers to be available at night and at weekends and precarious and shift work often means working out with so-called ‘normal’ hours. Unite set up the ‘Haud the Bus’ campaign to raise awareness around, and campaign against, the continued withdrawal of so-called unprofitable bus routes operated by private sector bus companies, which have left communities across the country, from West Lothian and Aberdeenshire to the Borders, abandoned. These communities are being cut off from services and opportunities at the whim of bus companies without sufficient or meaningful engagement with the people affected.

Unite sees municipal ownership of the bus network as providing social value as well as economic value and an essential component in response to these cuts by increasing bus provision where it is needed, including the opportunity to extend services to areas of the country that have been left in so-called ‘transport poverty’ and, ultimately in the longer term, doing so at no cost to passengers.

Fare-free buses operate in the French channel port of Dunkirk, a city of 200,000 people. There, free bus travel has proved an overwhelming success, with a 50% increase in passenger numbers on some routes, and almost 85% on others. Bus routes and bus fleets have been extended and include green buses run on natural gas. Prior to free buses, fares raised only around 10% of the network’s €47m ($41.6m) annual running costs – 30% came from local government and 60% from a public transport levy on organisations and public bodies with more than 11 employees. (By increasing the transport tax slightly to account for the 10% needed there was no requirement to increase taxes for households.) Free buses run by the public sector have allowed people on low incomes to travel further afield for work rather than being constrained by their inability to afford the cost of travel. The information presently in the public domain shows the Dunkirk model is working. However, while the devil may be in the detail, it is certainly a model worth further consideration.

Accessible, affordable and sustainable transport offers people the ability to fully participate in the economy. It also offers access to opportunities in employment, education, health and leisure. All recognised as important in good mental and physical health. There are also precedents for public ownership of transport in Scotland. Scotland’s ferry network is run by Caledonian MacBrayne a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Scottish Government. In 2013 Prestwick Airport was bought by the Scottish Government for £1 as it was a ‘strategic infrastructure asset’ airport and to save jobs, and Scotland’s rail network – previously fully publicly owned – has also been heavily subsidised by the Scottish Government.

The First Minister also announced she was prepared to take the railways back into public ownership following complaints about the service. As in Dunkirk, free travel could be funded using the money the Government currently spends on subsidising concessionary travel as well as the subsidy provided to bus companies to run less profitable bus routes and services. Other income could be raised through improved job opportunities leading to increasing levels of employment which would result in increased tax revenue. Or, as is the case in Dunkirk, a tax on employers to assist employees travelling to work which is not passed on to employees. Less car journeys would result in less wear and tear on our roads, presently costing Scottish taxpayers around £68m pa. Less pollution would help attain climate change targets, ultimately improving the country’s overall physical health and, with access to social and recreational activities, an overall healthier nation, reducing costs to the NHS. It is clear there are many ways to fund free municipally owned buses. The hurdle may not be funding it but the desire and political will to implement it.

Pat Rafferty is the Scottish secretary of the UNITE unions. The full version of this article first appeared online at Red Robin in April 2019.