Ireland may not be ready for free public transport, an expert has said.

Would free transport work?

Having free public transport in Ireland would bring both opportunity and risk, including teenagers potentially using buses as “youth clubs on wheels” a Cork expert has said.

Stephan Koch, acting chair of the Transport and Mobility Forum, Cork, told the Cork Independent he is “a little bit wary” of making public transport free in Ireland and that cheaper and more simplified fares would be his preferred path.

In June 2021, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action issued a report outlining a roadmap towards reducing emissions in the transport sector by 51% by 2030. Free public transport was one of the recommendations in the report.

The committee recommended that the Government consider the benefits and feasibility of the provision of free public transport, based on the experiences of policies in other cities and towns in Europe and elsewhere. In 2020, Luxemburg became the first country in the world to introduce completely free nationwide public transport. Last year, Malta introduced a free travel scheme offering free public transport to holders of a personalised public transport card.

However, Mr Koch said that to make public transport free in Ireland “you have to make it fair” and that the money must come from somewhere.

“Money would need to come from the taxpayer and then we come back to this split between city and countryside. It would be a bit unfair to the countryside dwellers because they can't really avail of the services that city dwellers would be able to. The countryside dweller shouldn't disproportionately subsidise the Dublin commuter,” said Mr Koch who has been with the UCC Office of Buildings and Estates since 2006.

He added: “If you provide public transport completely for free or at a very low price, and if you attract more people, there needs to be more on offer of course. So, you have higher costs and lower revenue. There needs to be a balance struck.”

Mr Koch also highlighted that if public transport is made completely free, some people, particularly younger people, might start taking “trips for fun” which would take up capacity and increase traffic.

Turning to emissions, Mr Koch said in order for Ireland to reach is environmental goals, all public transport must be completely electric and there must be far less cars on the road, especially people driving as single occupants.

He said: “There is no doubt we need to get more people into public transport and out of a private cars. On the other hand, we're not all living in cities, we're living in a very dispersed settlement structure here in Ireland with only a few cities, and the rest being towns, villages and townlands.

“Yes, you need to get more people onto public transport, and yes, fares in Ireland are not the lowest, not the most straight forward, and making it easier would definitely help. I know from a student side here in UCC, it is a cost factor, no doubt, especially when they come from further afield on a daily or weekly basis,” he concluded.