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In context: Free bus travel for under 19s

Edward Higgens/PA Archive/PA Images

In context: Free bus travel for under 19s

All you need to know about the headline budget announcement


The Scottish Greens agreed to back Scottish Government spending plans on the condition that up to £80m a year is provided for young people to get free bus travel from 2021. In a letter to Greens co-leader Patrick Harvie on the eve of the budget debate, Finance Secretary Kate Forbes wrote: “I am happy to give an in principle commitment to a National Concessionary Travel Scheme for free bus travel for those aged 18 and under, subject to the completion of the necessary preparations, including research and due diligence.” She said the government would “aim” to have this work completed to allow for the scheme to be rolled out in January 2021, and she allocated £15m from the 2020-21 budget to make this possible.

How will it work?

Current estimates reveal more than 800,000 young people in Scotland will benefit from the proposal. Scotland already provides free transport on city and intercity bus services for those aged over 60 and people with disabilities. More than one million people have benefited since it was introduced in 2006 by the Labour-Liberal Democrat Coalition. The new scheme will work in a similar way, offering free travel to school, college, work, sport and leisure for anyone aged under 19. It will also enable young people to use the free ferry journeys currently available to people aged over 60 in island communities. The over-60s scheme requires those eligible to apply for a National Entitlement Card by visiting their local authority, completing an application form, and providing a recent photograph along with proof of age and address.

Why is it necessary?

As Friends of the Earth Scotland director Richard Dixon said, the plan will mean “less congestion, less air pollution, less climate emissions and better access to education and jobs for young people, but more fundamentally, it means an acceleration of the long-term decline in people who consider a car the best way to get about”.

Is anyone against the proposal?

The Scottish Conservatives cast doubt on whether the budget will actually guarantee free bus travel for teenagers, pointing to the fact that the Scottish Government has said it will “merely ‘support preparations’ for the scheme to introduce it ‘if possible’”. Shadow finance secretary Donald Cameron said: “There’s no commitment to free bus travel for young people, as the Greens seem to naively think, and the Green party seems to have dropped almost every other demand it previously made.”

Scottish Labour slammed the initiative for not going far enough. The party’s finance spokesperson Rhoda Grant said the plan was a “pale imitation” of Scottish Labour’s call for free bus travel for under 25-year-olds. “As ever, it is the young people of Scotland, our local councils and the environment that will pay the price for the Greens’ 15 minutes of fame,” she said.

On this issue, Holyrood understands the Greens pushed for a much higher age limit but came to a late compromise with the government for an under-19 policy.

How much will it cost?

The Scottish Government believes the proposal will cost £60m per year to deliver. However, the Greens have estimated it will cost between £60m and £80m, because it will encourage more people to catch the bus. On the flipside, how much will it save people? According to Greens’ analysis, the initiative will save a student travelling from Castle Douglas to study at Dumfries College £1,231 per academic year. A family in Edinburgh will save £304 a year on their child going to and from school if they take the bus, and a family of four will save £22.70 on a trip from Keith to Inverurie Trampoline Park.

Do any other countries offer free public transport?

Luxembourg recently became the first country to make all public transportation free for residents, cross-border commuters and tourists, to bring down congestion. It does not include first class tickets or some night bus services.

Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013, making it the first capital city to do so. The Netherlands offers free public transport for students on weekdays, with a 40 per cent discount offered on weekends. 

Hasselt, Belgium, has provided free bus services for people aged under 19 since 1996. Several cities in Poland offer “unconditionally free” public transport for all users. Another city, Olkusz, offers free public transport to car owners registered in its municipality. Catania in Italy has offered free metro and bus lines to all luniversity students since 2018.

Outside Europe, several cities in Brazil offer free public transport for its residents, including Maricá in Rio de Janeiro which has offered the service since 2014. In the United States, all transportation services in Commerce, California have been free of charge since 1962. And since last year, India’s capital city New Delhi has offered free metro and bus services to women only.

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