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Jo was born in Edinburgh into an activist background. With an academic background in media discourse, Jo writes in areas of economics, politics, and social justice.
Could free transport tackle our carbon problem?

Following up on my article commenting on the ecoConnect forum, I want to return to an issue that I only touched upon previously: that of alternative options to Electric Vehicles (EVs), namely public transport, and what role it can play in the reduction of carbon emissions. As certain members of the panel had vast experience in the transport industry, I had been interested to find out what their opinion was on the idea of free public transportation as opposed to EVs as a way of reducing our carbon footprint.

Basing the concept on a move made in Tallinn, Estonia, the idea is not a new one. It has long been advocated by the Scottish Socialist Party, discussed at the Scottish Green Party conference earlier this month, and piloted in several towns and cities worldwide – but never to the scale that has been adopted by the Baltic state since the beginning of this year.

Although the reasoning behind the policy is hotly disputed – some believe it to be a political move to increase popularity before upcoming elections – it seems to have the full support of the residents of Tallinn, who are seeing their expenses alleviated, in some cases saving a month’s salary that would otherwise be spent on travel. And, strangely, the government are happy too. According to their figures, more movement means people are spending more. They are also gaining more in taxes due to the requirement that the people of Tallinn be registered to use the programme. In fact, the tax revenues look to be off-setting the programme’s running costs.

Of course, the issue for discussion here is environmental, even although the social benefits look to begin a very important debate also. Environmentally, the benefits are more complex to measure; despite Estonian government figures showing the number of cars on the streets has dropped by 15%, with carbon dioxide emissions expected to reduce by 45,000 tons annually, critics say increased public transport vehicles on the roads to cater for the programme could feasibly be off-setting any reductions, making targets unachievable. But with Tallinn already operating electric public transport vehicles – trolley buses and trams – the system looks more and more like a drive in the right direction.

Despite the unknowns, what I was keen to find out was whether this type of scheme could be introduced in Scotland. And, if not: why not? A country committed to renewable energy and one that already provides free public transport to its pensioners and the young is surely a good canvas, especially with a government concerned about air quality, carbon emissions, and congestion (if the recent release of “Switched on Scotland” is anything to go by). But what did the panel think? I don’t think I was prepared for the answer.

The question was met with a mild humour as if so erroneous it was only worthy of a cracked smile, certainly not a serious discussion. I can see why: Tallinn has a history of sizeable government subsidies into public transport, which provided more than half the overall cost of the programme’s implementation and subsequent upkeep. Piloting the scheme in Scotland therefore would have huge budgetary implications when Scottish Government’s subsidies into transport infrastructure have long been heavily criticised as insufficient, leaving a gap that is largely filled by the lucrative private sector. At present, therefore, it would seem impossible.

“I think we need to stop going into wars before considering free transport” was the response from Jim Orr, Vice Convenor of Transport and Environment for Edinburgh Council – and that pretty mush summed it up. For him, and I’d imagine many others, stopping the human and economic costs of war should be of a higher priority than bleating about getting freebie trips on buses, boats and trains. However, and I’m no foreign policy expert, but achieving free transport suddenly doesn’t seem so implausible when faced with the monumental task of stopping a multi-billion dollar global industry that is the business of war. But, quests for world peace aside, for the rest of the panel it is agreed – affordable, not free, transport is the answer.

But this got me thinking: why is free transport really such a pipe dream? Surely a commitment to reducing carbon emissions means reallocating budgets and implementing changes that exercise that commitment. Surely policies have to be drawn up that comprise a real sense of the tackling of change. Even a gradual shift can be undertaken over time – no? When it has already been established that the cost of EVs are outwith the reach of the majority, many of whom own new or second-hand cars, it would seem that existing government policy and incentives to reduce climate change are only pertinent to the minority and fail to fit in with the reality faced by the very constituents the politicians are there to serve.

Is it because “free” counteracts a sense of profit? After all, there is always talk of strengthening the economy. Or is it because any political move taken has to be of benefit to somebody – just usually not ordinary people? I daren’t speculate. But what did strike me was that the very concept that free transport is impossible seems to have become normalised. When a large part of the event itself had been given over to the discussion of the struggles in normalising the EV, I had thought the panel might have been more open to the idea. Maybe next time.

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