Defying hope and common sense, it appears (at least in Tallinn, Estonia) that providing free transit to local users, while resulting in more rides, doesn’t reduce auto traffic. Report here in Eltis.
The National Audit Office of Estonia have been investigating the free public transport introduced in Tallinn, including the free bus and tram travel for local registered people. …
Results on the county model were that free public transport has not reached its goal to reduce car journeys. Whilst public transport use numbers have increased, still more than half of all trips to work are done by car.
“What is positive is that the decline in the share of public transport users has stopped for a couple of years,” stated Auditor General Janar Holm. “Unfortunately, not a significant number of new users have been attracted to public transport despite the fact that over the recent years, the state has allocated more and more funds to cover the costs of county bus transport and has allowed people to travel by bus free of charge in most counties.” …
Additionally, it was found that the bus network is not designed to meet people’s mobility needs, since it got planned from the view of current public transport users only. Consequently, the needs of car users must be taken into consideration for the design of future public transport services to offer an attractive alternative to car travel.
Perhaps this is why transit agencies are not typically big fans of ‘free transit’ – even when governments are initially prepared to fill the fiscal hole that the loss of fares creates in their budgets (in TransLink’s case, about half their revenue). And unlike the users themselves, government often won’t increase its funding or even maintain filling the hole.
Another story on the experiment notes that the increase in ridership was relatively low compared to other free fare programs. That can be explained by the fact that the city’s transit fares were already low. In addition, transit ridership was already relatively high (around 40 percent).”
There’s also a question of perceived fairness: car users already believe transit is unfairly funded, even with fares, while they have to cover road costs through gas taxes. (It isn’t true, but it’s commonly believed.) Free transit can exacerbate that perception.
Another unintended consequence of the free-transit policy: people walked less and took transit more. From the World Economic Forum:
In 2014, a year into the experiment, the use of public transport had increased by 14%. However, car use only declined by 5% (though the average distance travelled by car actually went up).
In fact, it was walkers who hopped on buses, as the number of trips made on foot dropped by a staggering 40%.