Proposal: a campaign for free public transport in London
We have discussed this proposal in the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition, and now invite organisations, groups and individuals to join us in this initiative. We hope to have a get-together on this early in 2024. To indicate interest, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Free public transport can help tackle climate change globally, and air pollution locally, while supporting households struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Transport should be provided as a service, just as health, education and public parks are.
On climate, London is falling behind its own weak targets, and even further behind targets worked out by climate scientists. The transport sector is the city’s second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after the built environment, and the sector that has made the least progress in cutting fossil fuel use over the last twenty years.
Drastic, demonstrative action is needed. Free public transport, implemented together with improvements to services, investment in active travel and ending subsidies to car drivers and the haulage industry, can help rapidly to cut the number of vehicles on the road. We need to make public transport Londoners’ first choice for getting around: make it enjoyable. This is the best way to reduce emissions.
Cutting down road traffic is also the best way to tackle air pollution that kills thousands of Londoners each year.
Free public transport is a social justice measure. It supports households on the lowest income, who are the least likely to have a car. By becoming the first big city in the world to provide free public transport, London could show the way to take action that addresses both climate change and social inequality.
How is it done?
The effect of free public transport, in terms of reducing carbon emissions and air pollution, is strongest if adopted together with other transport policies, including:
- Embracing the principle that transport is a public service, not a commodity sold for profit; expanding services further, starting by reversing cuts in bus services, and investing heavily in support for active travel.
- Community support for a stable workforce with fair pay and conditions, and union organisation. Such a workforce is the key to a good service, as the unions’ recent success in ditching plans to close rail ticket offices shows.
- Reversing several decades of policy support and subsidies for motor traffic, at the public’s expense, from national and local government. This could include smart road charging (currently under discussion at GLA); smart emissions-based parking charges, coordinated across London; repurposing the Silvertown Tunnel; and expansion of school streets and other measures to reclaim street space for communities.
- In London’s case, free public transport policies would be most effective if allied with progress towards cheap or free train travel in the south east, provided by publicly owned companies.
London can learn from, and build on, a wealth of existing experience in offering free public transport, currently in Luxemburg and Tallinn (capital of Estonia), and at different times in the last 30 years in numerous cities in France, Germany and the US. London has already moved in the right direction, by providing free transport for over-60s and under-18s: extending these existing schemes would present few practical problems.
London and national policy
We favour free public transport not only in London, but nationally, and will work together with those outside London campaigning on this issue.
National government policy has undermined public transport and active travel for many years, by supporting road traffic with subsidies and undermining rail and bus services in line with privatisation dogma. At the same time, Conservative politicians seek to divide voters by claiming that London has an outsize share of national resources. We reject this divisive politics.
National government has used negotiations with the mayor’s office to try to force a heavier burden on passengers (by increasing fares and limiting benefits) and staff (by constraining pay increases and undermining pension conditions).
To achieve free public transport in London means a change in national government policy. We call on the Mayor to join us in advocating such a change.
How would it be paid for?
Revenue from fares comprises about half of Transport for London’s income (£4.3 billion of £8.6 billion (forecast) in 2022-23). TfL also receives revenue from business rates retention, other operating income e.g. the congestion charge, and grants from central government.
The transport networks in most of the world’s big cities already rely on fares for a much lower proportion of their revenue than TfL does. TfL recognises this, and its policy is to reduce the proportion of revenue from fares. We agree with this, but believe the reduction should be much more ambitious, with a target close to zero.
Alternative sources of income could include:
- Revenue raised by local government, e.g. a payroll tax (used in Paris), land value capture (e.g. Community Infrastructure Levy used to fund the Elizabeth Line); other ways of raising revenue from commercial and luxury property; reformed road use charging (see above).
- Revenue raised by central government, e.g. increased fuel duty to restore the value lost by 13 years during which it has been frozen, which would be sufficient to fund free public transport in London and far beyond. Central government could also e.g. follow the Welsh government and declare a moratorium on road building, and divert funds to public transport. GLA policy is to reduce reliance on central government funding, but given the likelihood of a change of government, this approach can be reviewed.
It would not be the function of a community-based campaign to prescribe how free public transport could be funded: the above simply indicates that there is a range of options.
To win support from a wide range of community groups; transport workers’ unions; researchers of climate, air pollution and transport policy; politicians and local government, in order to lobby the Mayor and the GLA. This may be able to build on the unity of purpose that we have achieved in the Stop the Silvertown Tunnel coalition.
Comments and feedback welcome, to email@example.com.