According to some, Australia has some of the most expensive public transport fares in the world.

One report in 2023 using crowd-sourced data ranked Australia third-most expensive, behind Switzerland and the Netherlands.

As the cost of living rises, it’s reasonable to wonder if public transport could be cheaper or even free, which isn’t unheard of.

Luxembourg, a small European country bordered by Belgium, France and Germany, became the first country in the world to make public transport completely free for everyone.  

Public transport fares have been free in Luxembourg since 2020. (Supplied: Markus Hesse)

It was first introduced in 2020 and has since become the norm for commuters. 

The concept of fare-free public transportation has been trialled in several other countries to various degrees including Estonia’s capital of Tallinn, in northern Europe. 

Almost a decade before Luxembourg made the leap, Tallinn introduced free fares for registered residents after a successful referendum saw the policy voted in. 

Tourists however, or anyone visiting the country, still have to pay. 

The concept has also been trialled in various other countries including several US cities.

So is free public transport achievable? And should Australia consider it?

How much does public transport cost across Australia?  

The average cost for an Australia adult who commutes to and from work by public transport each weekday is $40.72 per week.

That’s according to data collected by the Australian Automobile Association (AAA).

The figure was determined by a hypothetical situation which assumes the person lives in middle to outer-ring suburbs with relatively high population density and good access to public transport — which realistically, isn’t always the case.

It shows Brisbane is the most expensive capital city, with public transport costing about $59.67 per week for an adult.

One Brisbane commuter told the ABC it was more expensive for his family of five to catch public transport into the city and home again, compared to driving and paying for parking or using a ridesharing service. 

“That’s a bit of a public transport fail I’d say,” he said.

Melbourne and Sydney were neck and neck, costing on average $50 per week.

Perth was slightly cheaper at $45.90, while in Adelaide a person will spend on average $42.50. 

Public transport in Victoria costs about $900 million each year. (ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

Canberra and Hobart are significantly cheaper, with weekly costs setting a person back $29.72 and $28.00 respectively. 

Darwin was the cheapest capital city in Australia where a person will spend on average $20.00 per week on public transport.

What are the benefits of free public transport? 

While most people the ABC spoke to would welcome free public transport, some experts say the benefits are quite limited. 

Professor of urban studies at the University of Luxembourg, Markus Hesse, said it was hard to measure the policy’s success or specific impacts because of a lack of data.

But there is one immediate benefit that jumped to his mind. 

“It makes life easier, simple as that,” he said. 

Prior to the policy, a single fare would have set you back about 2 euros, or $3.30 AUD — and a daily fare for the whole system was 4 euros, or $6.59 AUD.

University of Luxembourg professor Markus Hesse says free fares alone aren’t enough to make a difference. (Supplied: Markus Hesse)

While it was still significantly cheaper compared to Australian fares, Professor Hesse said the introduction of free fares was well received by residents and was now somewhat taken for granted.

“If you don’t have to pay for something, you would not be worrying about that too much,” he said. 

It was thought free fares would encourage more people to catch public transport, resulting in less cars on the road and a reduction of carbon emissions.  

Professor Hesse said again, with limited data it was difficult to tell if this was the case but it didn’t seem likely.

“It seems difficult to achieve that sort of system change [with free fares alone],” he said.

“Free fares could have an impact but not one single factor alone could lead to systematic changes.” 

Experts say free fares wouldn’t necessarily change a persons preferred method of transport. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

But according to senior research fellow at RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, Terry Li, increased use of public transport is still the best way to reduce carbon emissions.

“We talk a lot about using electrical vehicles in the future, but if you consider the whole life cycle of EV usage — manufacturing, infrastructure, has also generated high emissions,” Professor Li said. 

“Increasing the use of public transport probably is considered as our best way to make a significant shift.”

However, he said free fares wouldn’t necessarily change a person’s preferred method of transport, especially given lower connectivity further out from a city’s CBD. 

“It might have a very limited benefit for people who currently drive because the current public transport wouldn’t take them to where they really want to go,” he said.

The main benefits would be to young people and students, the elderly and those on low incomes across Australia. 

Are there any barriers? 

Ticket sales in Luxembourg were about 40 million euros each year before public transport became free. 

The government now pays for that out of its budget. 

“The bigger the system is, the more expensive this will be and the more subject to competition and competitive funding issues will be raised,” Professor Hesse said.

Professor Li says increased public transport is still the best way to reduce carbon emissions. (ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Victorian Public Transport User Association spokesperson Daniel Bowen said it costed about $900 million a year for Victoria’s public transport system alone to operate.

“That’s $900 million that taxpayers would have to come up with every year if it was free,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne.

Mr Bowen said while free fares sounded attractive it wouldn’t necessarily be effective because the major barrier for more people using public transport was the quality of the service. 

That’s something Professor Li agrees with. He said cost and time were the two main factors people considered when weighing up their mode of transport options.

So, while free public transport ticked one of those boxes and would appeal to some, Professor Li suggested Australia’s network as it currently was would pose as the biggest barrier.  

“The disadvantage of public transport when compared with cars is the lower connectivity,” he said. 

Public transport in inner-city areas is reasonably reliable and well connected, but the further away from the city you get, the quality tends to decline.

“The system’s performance is very much driven by the quality of the connections on offer,” Professor Hesse also said.

“I think if you want to see change, you need the whole package in terms of infrastructure, in terms of accessibility issues.

“The whole measure that is needed to make the system more human friendly and less car-oriented.”

Is it achievable in Australia?

To put the size of Luxembourg into perspective, it spans across 2,586 square kilometres — only slightly larger than the Australian Capital Territory which is 2,358 square kilometres in size.

Given the sheer size of Australia, it would be difficult to apply the concept of free fares across the whole country.

Increased frequency and improved connectivity are other measures that experts say could encourage more people to catch public transport. (Supplied: Corey Wolf)

It would also be quite costly for the government, and could see funding pulled from other important areas or an increase in payable tax. 

So while free fares would ease financial pressures for some, expert suggest that measure alone wouldn’t necessarily improve public transport or encourage more people to utilise it. 

Infrastructure and connectivity would need to improve to make any sort of significant difference.

That includes decreasing the time it takes to travel via buses and trains as well as increasing the frequency of services and its overall quality.