The budgetary measure that offers free public transport to all by October next year is more of a social than an environmental one.
It will mainly benefit current bus users, often at the lower end of salary scales or on social benefits. The measure will be unlikely to pull many people out of their cars and reduce traffic congestion unless the efficiency of the bus service is greatly improved.
There is nothing wrong at all in adding another social measure to the several announced in Budget 2022. However, it is misleading to file this one under the budgetary chapter related to the environment and to sustainable development.
It currently costs residents only a few euros a week at most to travel on the buses. For others, such as those over 60, the cost is capped at €2 a week. Other commuters go free of charge: the over 70s, teenagers of 14 and over, full-time students and people with a disability.
The government is targeting the wrong obstacle to the use of public transport: cost instead of efficiency.
Free public transport can be very helpful for those who cannot or do not use a car, whether for financial, environmental or other reasons. But the incentive is unlikely to prove strong enough for those who do have a car, even if it’s just to go from point A to B.
First, most drivers will be highly reluctant to abandon the comfortable, personal space of a private car and mingle on mass transport.
Secondly, the reality is that they will still get stuck in traffic on an often overcrowded bus after having waited too long at the bus stop and then having their journey further lengthened by the many stops that buses make along the route.
For those whose time is precious or who need to be sure of making appointments on time, travelling by bus is still unthinkable.
This is not to take away from the improvements that the service has made over the years.
While on some routes and at certain times of the day, the buses are reported to be unreliable, on other routes and at other times they seem to run like clockwork and can be a convenient mode of transport so long as the greater travelling time is planned for.
The fact that users only need to swipe their Tallinja cards or a credit card has reduced stopping times. And although not always entirely dependable, the mobile phone app by which commuters can see estimated arrival times has given them more control over their journeys.
But this is still far from enough.
Finance Minister Clyde Caruana gave no indication in his budget speech of measures that would improve the reliability and efficiency essential to getting car commuters on board with the idea.
As has been outlined by Maria Attard, director of the university’s Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development, these measures would need to include dedicated bus lanes, better infrastructure at bus stops, consistent removal of illegally parked vehicles that impede the passage of buses, and better provision of service on routes of high demand.
Other countries have shown “no strong evidence that free public transport has resolved environmental or traffic problems”, she said.
This renders the budget measure questionable in terms of its declared aim. Before going ahead with it, the government needs to study how to make sure the massive increase in subsidy to the bus company will give the taxpayer value for money and truly cut traffic congestion.
The promise of free public transport may have grabbed headlines but without further improvement, it will not grab the imagination of enough car owners to make a difference on the roads.