Minister for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri described the Aam Aadmi Party as “disruptionist”, and spoke mockingly of “broken window economics” and “broken window fraud” while criticising the Delhi government’s proposal to make buses and the Metro free for women Thursday. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, however, insisted that the government has both a concrete plan and the funds to implement the proposal.
Under the proposal announced by the Delhi government Monday, women will have the option to not pay for rides. The move, which is at the stage of feedback and planning, has drawn reactions ranging from enthusiastic approval to vehement rejection.
Cities in the United States and Europe have experimented with the idea of free public transport since at least the 1950s. Germany, France, Belgium, and Estonia have taken initiatives to make public transport free, either for the entire population or for sections such as students or senior citizens. Luxembourg has pledged to become the first country to make public transport free for everybody by 2020. The most common reason for any city incentivising the use of public transport has been to tackle congestion on the roads.
The reasons given by the Delhi government are different.
One, to make it easier for women to move from informal and more unsafe modes of transport such as shared autos and cabs to more formal and safer modes such as the Metro.
Two, to help more women enter the workforce. A report prepared by the Delhi Labour Department in 2018 found that of the 19.6 lakh workers engaged in trading, service and the manufacturing sector in the city, only 11.4% were women, and nearly half of them worked as “informal hired workers”. The government hopes that with women being able to travel for free, more of them, especially from the economically disadvantaged groups, would start working.
Globally, conversations around free public transport have revolved around decongestion and affordability, rather than safety. One reason is that many of these experiments have been carried out in highly advanced Scandinavian countries with mostly safe public spaces and better reporting rates of crime against women.
A November 2017 study of 4,000 Delhi University students by Brown University PhD candidate Girija Borker (Safety First: Perceived Risk of Street Harassment and Educational Choices of Women) found that women were willing to choose a lower ranking college if it ensured a safer commute.
“… For the average woman, selecting a safe travel route will require her to choose a college that is lower quality, leading to tradeoffs between travel safety and college quality. Women also face similar tradeoffs between travel time and college quality… Alternatively, women are willing to spend an additional Rs 18,800 (USD 290) per year, relative to men, for a route that is… safer,” Borker wrote.
The proposal to make public transport free for women has no well known precedent anywhere in the world, and could be the first of its kind. Studies on fully free public transport systems have underlined both positives and challenges.
Hasselt, Belgium, made public transport free in 1996, and also expanded its transport fleet. A decade later, a study reported a tenfold increase in ridership [‘Subsidies in Public Transport’: European Transport (2006), by Cees van Goeverden and others, quoted in ‘The Prospects of Fare-Free Public Transport: Evidence From Tallinn’: Transportation (2017), by Oded Cats and others]; however, rising operational costs forced Hasselt to do away with the scheme in 2014.
The small German town of Templin made public transport free in 1997, and continues with the policy even today. Within three years, ridership increased 1,200%, with children and the youth making up the vast majority of the increased numbers. This, however, led to increased vandalism. Also, “the vast majority of the substitution effects were due to shift from soft modes — 30-40% from biking and 35-50% from walking. Only 10-20% of the substitution effects were associated with previous car trips.” [Cats et al. (2017)]
In 1991, the Netherlands introduced a seasonal free-fare travel card for higher education students, which led to the share of trips made by students rising from 11% to 21%. Fifty-two per cent of cyclists, and 34% of car users moved. [van Goeverden et al. (2006)]
However, small European cities can hardly be an indicator for Delhi. The population of all of the Netherlands is around 1.7 crore, much less than Delhi’s estimated 2 crore. Average income levels are not comparable, and the public transportation system in Delhi is weaker than in most European countries.
Jasmine Shah, vice-chairperson of Dialogue and Development Commission of Delhi, where the proposal was framed, said: “There is very little academic data to go by when it comes to a scheme like this in our context. The West has done it to battle road congestion and pollution. We haven’t really found a similar project in developing countries. But perhaps this will make us the pioneers.”
The way forward
The challenge for the Delhi government is to find the funds for the project — which it says it has. According to the Delhi government, the cost of subsidising women’s travel will be around Rs 1,200 crore annually. However, studies show that operational costs frequently rise in the long run, and schemes become increasingly less viable.
Then there are the challenges of implementation. Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) is looking at special passes for women. But the Metro has automated fare collection (AFC) gates that require tokens or Metro cards — the Metro will have to either isolate entry and exit points for women where AFC gates can be done away with, or come up with special cards or tokens for women.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has said that the move is primarily to ensure that women can travel safely. The Metro network has CCTV cover, guards, marshals, Metro police and the CISF, and is the safest mode of transport in the city. The Delhi government had announced CCTV cameras and marshals for buses too, but the plan is hanging fire.
Along with safety on public transport, last mile connectivity is a big issue. For women, walking to and from the nearest bus stop or Metro station, especially during the early mornings and late evenings, remains unsafe in many places in the city.
Sewa Ram, transport expert at the School of Planning and Architecture, has suggested that the Delhi government start a last-mile connectivity pilot project in one neighbourhood by ensuring adequate street lighting and making available modes such as smaller buses to commuters.
The Norwegian city of Stavanger experimented with free public transport between August and December 2011. An evaluation found no evidence of reduced car use, and the increase in ridership was attributed to more walkers getting on, as well as more ‘fun riders’.
In 2008 and 2013, Gothenburg offered tens of thousands of motorists free public transport for a limited period. Later, 25% of motorists were recorded as having moved to public transport as primary commuting mode. Long-term effects were not measured.
In 2009, 373 car owners in Copenhagen were given a free month travel card. The share of participants who used public transport doubled from 5% to 10%, but six months later, fell to 7%.
In Ashville, North Carolina, in 2006, ridership rose 59% when public transport was made free. An increase of 9% was retained after the experiment ended.
The Belgian city of Hasselt made public transport free for residents and visitors in 1996. A decade later, it was reported that ridership had increased tenfold, with more than half the new users taking public transport instead of walking or cycling. The city finally concluded that the scheme was unviable and withdrew it with effect from January 1, 2014, leaving only some specific concessions. The scheme had no long-term impact on car ownership.