GUEST BLOG: Bryan Bruce – What if we made public transport free?


I live in an area of Auckland where, if you travel by car in peak times, you will sit in a traffic jam on a road feeding on to the motorway for 20 to 30 minutes .

If you travel by bus ( we don’t have light rail in my neck of the woods) you’ll get into the city much quicker and help to reduce the impact on our environment.

One solution I’ve heard being offered is to take out a whole lot of houses on either side of the two lane problem road for maybe 15 Km so it can become a 4 lane feeder link.

No thanks. New roads have a habit of getting filled up with new traffic.

What if,instead, we made public transport free?

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What if, at peak hour, you knew that there would be another bus in 5 minutes and a network of buses and trains could take you efficiently to where you wanted to go? What if those buses were electric ?

Last February Luxembourg , the smallest sovereign state in Europe (population 626,978) became the first country in the world to make all public transport free.

Why not us?

Bryan Bruce is one of NZs most respected documentary makers and public intellectuals who has tirelessly exposed NZs neoliberal economic settings as the main cause for social issues.


  1. It’s a perfectly logical argument, Bryan. But remember: politics in NZ is a game, in which sponsored players get to positions of power on the basis of political contributions, and on the basis that those political contributions will buy policy. No matter how bad the policy might be, if it complies with the wants of a vested interest group with clout, it gets implemented.

    Who gains from a system dedicated to construction of roads and the importation of vehicles to fill them?

    Road designers.
    Road construction companies.
    Road maintenance companies.
    Vehicle importers.
    International shipping companies.
    Inter-island ferry companies.
    Vehicle salespersons.
    Insurance companies.
    Vehicle maintenance companies.
    Advertising agencies.
    Television networks.
    The AA (Automobile Association).
    VTNZ (and other vehicle testing organisations).
    International suppliers of fuel. (Oil companies).
    Local retailers of fuel.
    Health and safety compliance companies.
    Vehicle repair companies.
    ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation).
    The government -via taxes on fuel, taxes on vehicles,
    City and district councils -via planning consent, project compliance, monitoring etc.

    And all the people whose income is dependent on the above.

    Good luck turning that lot around and getting them to see sense.

    Who loses from a system dedicated to construction of roads and the importation of vehicles to fill them?

    Everyone. Especially anyone under the age of 70, as planetary meltdown and collapse of the global environment accelerate under the burden of motorised industrialism that pushes chemical, physical and biological factors out of balance at a rate way beyond anything that has occurred in the past 600 million years, and which will annihilate most life on Earth if it continues.

    Daily CO2
    Jun. 1, 2020: 418.32 ppm
    Jun. 1, 2019: 414.14 ppm

    • Aside from the global warming thing, – fact is we should out of COMMON SENSE be ,- making light rail, public transport more readily available and/or FREE. Or, if that offends the sensitivities of the sad neo liberal, making a token payment in the form of tickets available. A dollar for a week of travel.

      That’ll f@ck em.

      Its time this country and those shady dealers in the background making a mint out of current conditions got a good hard boot up the arse.

  2. John Minto proposed this for Christchurch.

    Wellington City Council fell for a scam that their trolley bus power supply needed fixing so they got rid of the trolley buses and now run diesel in their place.

    A later independent report laid out modest costs for upgrading the trolley bus power supply over several years, But too late the overhead lines were removed with indecent purposeful haste.

    The oil industry have a history of meddling with reports, deluding the Wellington City Council, first with doing away with trams, reports in recent years relegating light rail behind two forms of diesel buses very unfairly with unequal comparisons, and now trolley buses.

  3. Minto has been banging on about this for years. When he stood for the mayoralty in Auckland and then twice in Christchurch. We have a vociferous road lobby in Aotearoa and politicians blind to the idea of free public transport. Every 8 ton loaded axle travelling along a road is the equivalent of 10,000 cars. A laden 60 ton truck does the equivalent damage to the road of 70,000 cars. Dunkirk, Tallinn have free public transport.

    • Interesting stats, there Bronwen Summers,- its time we here in NZ grew up and studied our northern European cousins. Esp the Scandinavians , in so many ways. Neo liberalism is an inefficient, outdated and destructive ideology. It really is.

  4. Public transport in Auckland is already subsidized to the tune of about 50% by ratepayers. If we want ‘free’ public transport we would have to add the additional subsidy to the rates bill. In principal it is a bad idea because it subsidizes travelling long distances to work when we should be working from home or moving the businesses out of the centre. Surely Covid 19 taught us that?

    Auckland is problematic for public transport because the population density is less than half that required to make any public transport system break even. Making matter worse, despite 30 years of infill housing, the population density in the suburbs around the CBD is dropping because the progeny of boomers have flown the coop. I look down my street in a smart suburb 15 minutes from the CBD and half the home owners are retirees. So we have an inversion where the young inner city workers are often living on the periphery and the retirees are near the centre. This will sort itself out as my generation dies off. Already I’m beginning to see smart young couples with an infant renovating old villas. Fancy a million dollar mortgage anyone?

    The clowns running the Council think that cycling is going to be the answer. What a joke! Auckland is classed as a ‘temperate rain forest’ by geographers and it’s as hilly as all hell. Sure, you’ll get a dedicated few (typically white middle class males) who will bike into town, assuming the office has an ample supply of showers, but there is no way we will see a significant upsurge in bicycle riding sufficient to justify the cost of all the cycle lanes. Electric bikes may help somewhat but not enough. Cycling for the most part is a leisure activity, not a form of transport.

    • Good idea as it will give a guide, but it may take many years for patterns of commuting to adjust with a new incentives for workers to reside more conveniently to bus routes

  5. Great idea Bryan. Particularly as rail increases. Life would be easier for many if most “utilities” were in public ownership and cheap or free of charge. Free Wifi nationwide and power generation and supply returned to full public ownership would make such a difference to working class lives.

    But, but, that’s socialism-exactly!

  6. There are a lot of pros and a few reservations to the idea.
    The pros are obvious:
    1. Less cars = less traffic = fewer (horrendously expensive) new roads needed.
    2. Less CO2 emissions, especially if new fully electric buses become more readily available in the future.
    3. Less stress – being stuck in traffic jams is hugely stressful for people which leads to bad tempers and bad driving decisions.
    4. More security for bus drivers – not having any cash box reduces you as a target for assault and/or robbery.
    5. Reduced accounting costs because of no money to count and no expensive on-line ticket system to maintain.
    6. It has been calculated that traffic jams cost millions of dollars in terms of lower productivity, so logically reducing them would help the economy.
    But there are some drawbacks.
    It costs money, and lots of it. How to fund it, whether directly by government, fuel taxes, rates, etc. will be the most critical factor. Kiwis like to see buses go through their neighbourhoods in case they want to catch it once a year as long as there is no bus stop outside THEIR house and that THEY don’t have to pay for it.
    It might be only feasible in the largest cities. Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch would probably be the best served due to geography and because a high number of workers use the buses, and every worker that uses a bus means one car less on the road (obviously)
    But in metropolitan areas and smaller cities the difference in traffic would probably be slight, because a higher proportion of passengers are the elderly, disabled (blind, etc) and children who would not be using a car anyway. Buses have been free since about March 20 and there has been no noticeable increase in passenger numbers in my area (Manawatu). Mostly we get the same passengers we had before anyway, but we have definitely lost a lot of our (few) workers who used to catch the bus. They have presumably gone to their cars and once you lose a passenger to their car, you don’t get them back!
    The biggest problem is to encourage people to leave their cars behind and take the bus. You would think that offering free bus rides would be a no-brainer, but sadly it isn’t really the case. In my experience (and I work in public transport) a significant amount of Kiwis would rather pay twice the current costs of running a car than to lower themselves (as they see it) by riding a bus with the common public. Those type of people you will never ever get to ride public transport unless you ban private cars.
    More things need to happen in conjunction with making public transport free.
    Increased services, more express services (especially in Auckland).
    More dedicated bus lanes.
    New traffic rules that give public transport buses the right of way when pulling out of bus stops (I believe this is the case in some Australian states).
    Better linking systems between rail and bus services.
    Regional and small town urban linking services, which are almost non-existent in a lot of areas.
    Quicker movement towards electric buses so that the public feel that they are helping to reduce their carbon footprint every time they catch a bus.
    And then there is the curse of the present funding system which effectively means a race to the bottom.
    The way that present bus services are contracted out under tender means that almost always the lowest tender will win.
    Naturally, if the government centrally funds bus services to enable free services they will want to do it as cheaply as possible.
    But as we have already seen in Wellington cheapness comes at a cost – reliability of service, condition of vehicles, quality of drivers and maintenance of bus stops, hubs and terminals.
    If the government takes over, and this is probably inevitable if free buses become nationwide, will the race to the bottom be any different?
    I would love to see a detailed proposal covering all aspects of public transport from a government appointed working group, but I fear that the present government will have other things on their mind at the moment.

    • Philj. And that needs to be countered as they use mostly lies and propaganda.

      oil industry backed mainly at this stage.


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