The possibility of providing free public transport to encourage commuters to swap their cars for buses will be one of several questions researched by economics students at the University of Malta this year.

The research proposal, one of several presented by students at a seminar in Valletta this week, was prompted by the continuous rise in private car users and congestion and the detrimental results on the environment and economy.

Zero-fare public transport has never been implemented on a nationwide basis but was introduced in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, which has a population only slightly smaller than Malta, three years ago.

It has also been introduced in a number of individual towns and cities around the world. In Hasselt, Belgium, public transport use increased by 13 times since fares were removed in 1997.

During the University of Malta seminar, the student behind the proposal noted that initial research into case studies overseas has shown that free public transport was responsible for other benefits such as a reduction in obesity from a more mobile public. The question will now be tackled in depth over the course of the year, incorporating secondary data and fresh analysis.

Meanwhile, other students will be examining questions such as the effect of lifestyles on productivity, the determinants of obesity and the demand for health services.

The effect of governance on well-being, the effect of the financial crisis on growth, the phenomenon of negative interest rates and of asset purchases by banks all form the basis of other research proposals.

Some students will be looking at specific markets, such as those for Malta-made products, for air travel and for cultural goods and services. Students will also question why Maltese wages are low and whether there is a property bubble.

Economics head of department Philip Von Brockdorff said the standard of dissertations in economics has been considered highly positively by external examiners in recent years.

He expressed his confidence that the work put in by the students would contribute significantly not only to the students’ formation but also to the department’s body of work to date.