Would free bus transport for kids solve our traffic woes?

If kids could to school free by bus, or were picked up by regional buses dropping them off at various schools... would parents stop taking kids to school?

In 2013 the city of Tallinn in Estonia became the first capital to introduce free public transport for all residents. The reasons were several, including guaranteeing mobility for unemployed and low-income residents, stimulating economic activity, and decreasing the modal share of private motorised transport.

Sustainablecities.eu claims that car traffic in Tallinn decreased by about 15% while the city expects increased tax income of €1 million per 1,000 newly registered inhabitants – an income that will almost compensate for the loss of income from tickets.

In London, the transport system provides different Oyster cards that allow children and students up to 19 years of age to travel for free on buses and trams and cheaper rates on the Tube and overground. Londoners aged 60 and over can travel free on public transport.

But in Malta, only children up to four years of age can travel for free while children aged between four and 10 can pay up to €2 a week, with limitless journeys. Different tallinja cards with advantageous rates also exist for students, adults, 60+ cardholders, holders of special ID cards and Gozo residents.

So with the public transport already enjoying significant government subsidies, can the provision of free public transport for minors – and therefore schoolchildren – be a solution to easing the pressure on our roads from private transportation during school hours?

A White Paper recently published by the Education Ministry considers the possibility of giving students free access to public transport. 

The government currently pays an average of €7.87 million per year to cover five contracts with transport service providers for state schools. The government is contractually bound until 2018.

The Malta Union of Teachers believes that allowing students to board buses for free would be one effective way of addressing Malta’s traffic nightmare. MUT president Kevin Bonello proposes that all students on the island – with the exclusion of kids at primary level – should be given a “student’s pass”.

“It will certainly reduce the numerous coaches and minivans on the road and it will definitely help those parents who on a daily basis drive their children to school,” Bonello says.

He argues that as things stand today, it doesn’t make financial sense for parents with two children or more to pay for private transport. “Children at public schools are either arriving too early or late because a coach or a minivan would have to make more than one trip every morning.”

The MUT president also believes that making use of public transport would help address the issue of bullying on school buses.

Bonello however recognises that the system would only work if all schools were properly serviced and the public transport runs on time. Pointing towards the boys’ school in Handaq, Bonello also questions why no bus stop was available within the industrial area, with the only bus stop situated in Mdina Road, Qormi.

The Transport Ministry on the other hand – which directed MaltaToday to the education ministry – had little to say on the proposal.

“Children under four years do not need a card and can travel on the public transport for free. Tariffs for children between four and 10 and students between 11 and 16 are already heavily subsidized,” was the little insight that Joe Mizzi’s ministry could muster.

Marthese Portelli, shadow minister for transport, is a supporter of free transport for kids. “If studied well and implemented properly a good number of cars could be removed from the road during rush hours. The crux lies in having an effective take-up.”

Portelli says the PN is in support of giving free school transport.

“But these measures on their own will not be enough. We have reached a saturation point that calls for widespread solutions.  One must look into the cause of the current state of affairs. We need to think ‘bold’.  We need to think out-of-the-box. We need to think holistically,” she says.

Alternattiva Demokratika’s secretary-general Ralph Cassar comes forward with a number of proposals on how students could be incentivised to make use of public transport… including making University students pay a parking fee.

“Sometimes you need disincentives to push for the use of public transport,” Cassar argues.

Alternattiva Demokratika has in the past proposed the setting up of a nation-wide school transport system. “We are open to different ideas and this is just one,” he says, while being less enthusiastic of giving free public transport to university students.

“With their stipends, I believe that a student card is within their reach,” he says.

Cassar says he would be open to students paying a parking fee: “The money could then be used to incentivise people who make use of alternative transport means, such as building shower cubicles for students making use of bicycles, or further reducing bus fares for students.”