Free public transport for young people - just the ticket?

Published 16/02/2024   |   Reading Time minutes

Next week sees the  Petitions Committee continue its work to explore the feasibility of free public transport for young people. Here we take a look at why it’s being called for, and what the Welsh Government has said on the issue.

A route to modal shift?

By the Welsh Government’s own admission, meeting it’s modal shift and net zero targets presents “a big challenge”. Published in 2021, the Wales Transport Strategy set out the aim to increase journeys made by sustainable modes (public transport or active travel) from an estimated 32% to 45% by 2040.

In its 2023 'Sustainable ways' report, the Welsh Youth Parliament (WYP) suggested that:

…making public transport free for young people would be a significant statement and the single biggest enabler to increasing public transport use.

The report showed that almost 75% of 1,300 young people surveyed would use public transport more if it was free. A 2022 report from Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity, found that the increasing costs of bus travel disproportionately affects young people, who are more reliant on public transport for accessing education, training, and employment.

Giving evidence to the Petitions Committee in November, representatives of the WYP suggested that free public transport for all people under the age of 25:

…would encourage more young people to…[use it] as they get older. This could also lead to behaviours being formed that will see young people continue to use public transport when they become adults.

Following publication of the WYP’s report, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters MS, is reported to have said “we simply don't have the funding to make buses free for young people”.

Do existing schemes offer a ‘fare’ deal?

While the Welsh Government suggests free public transport is unaffordable, it does offer some discounted travel for young people. However awareness of such schemes is low.

It’d be fair to say most of us know about concessionary fares for older people – with over 60s benefiting from free bus travel – yet 72% of the young people surveyed by the WYP were not aware of the discounts on offer to them.

In Wales, the 16-21 MyTravelPass gives holders a 30% discount on buses, while on the railways, Transport for Wales (TfW), wholly owned by the Welsh Government, offers a number of discounts and railcards.

Despite these schemes, giving evidence to the Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee’s 2022 inquiry on bus and rail, Professor Mark Barry suggested current bus concessions were not fair for young people. He said:

Given finances are tight, is it more important to provide free bus travel for everyone over 60, as important as that is, or is it more important to provide free bus travel for everyone under 25 trying to get to work?

Travelling further afield

In addition to Welsh specific schemes, National Rail offers a 16-17 Saver and 16-25 railcard, while the Disabled Persons Railcard offers 33% off rail fares across Great Britain and also applies to young people.

Some cities in England offer free travel on specific bus services for all ages, for instance in Manchester and Wakefield. Meanwhile, Scotland introduced free bus travel for 5 to 21-year-olds in January 2022. According to Transport Scotland, the resulting additional patronage allowed some bus companies to increase service provision. However, some media reports blamed the scheme for increasing “disorder” on buses.

Who’s on board with free public transport?

In November 2022, the then Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, Sophie Howe, called for free public transport for under 25s, as a way of protecting against future cost of living pressures. She also explained to the Equality and Social Justice Committee that:

…embedding a mindset around [the] use of public transport in those younger age groups tends to have that ongoing behavioural change implication.

The Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Rocio Cifuentes, has also repeatedly recommended there be “free public transport for children to tackle child poverty and the climate emergency”. In her most recent annual report, the Commissioner recommends free bus travel for all children, and called for the Welsh Government’s child poverty action plan to include a commitment to a free public transport pilot for under 18s within this Senedd term.

While not specifically focused on young people, there have been some trials of free bus transport in Wales – in March 2022 free bus travel was trialled in Newport, while a free bus scheme for all ages runs in Swansea during the school holidays. Between July 2017 and March 2018, free weekend travel on TrawsCymru was also trialled and had a positive impact.

Responding to the Children’s Commissioner’s recommendation, the Minister for Climate Change, Julie James MS, said:

Under the current operating model, the only way we can offer discounted or free travel is to negotiate reimbursement arrangements with operators which has proven to be costly, as has been seen with the free travel offer for under 22s in Scotland.

The Minister also pointed to the upcoming ‘Bus Bill’ as an “opportunity to look afresh at bus service delivery across Wales … and therefore the possibility around an enhanced provision for children and young people”.

Are financial constraints driving down plans?

During a 2022 Plenary debate on free public transport for young people, the Deputy Minister for Climate Change said that while it was “fair to point out that we are constrained”…and “we can't do everything we'd like to…we are determined to do more”.

However, in May 2023, the Deputy Minister stated that while the Welsh Government had been working on a bus fare cap – similar to the cap introduced by the Department for Transport in England - pressures resulting from inflation and increased costs did not allow for its implementation.

It can also be said that while the Welsh Government is “keen to progress” fare initiatives, it’s been a turbulent time for both the bus and rail industries. On bus services in particular, the Deputy Minister says the Welsh Government has to prioritise funding “to ensure essential bus services are maintained for communities”.

While it remains to be seen whether calls for free public transport for young people gain any further traction, the Petitions Committee will be exploring the issue with interest.

Article by Francesca Howorth, Lorna Scurlock and Amandine Debus, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Amandine Debus by the Natural Environment Research Council, which enabled this article to be completed.