Illustration Free Bus Travel
Credit: Jules Toussaint

Bus travel should be free for everyone

By Leah Hart

Young people and the environment would benefit if free bus travel was extended beyond 22.

In March 2021, the Young Persons’ Free Bus Travel Scheme was introduced in Scotland for those under 22 and permanently living here. After the simple process of applying for the Young Scot National Entitlement Card – ironically intended for everyone under 26 – under 22s were good to go.

It is difficult to find disadvantages in the reform. One of few positive attempts to encourage more use of public transportation services in the UK and drive young people back outside after Covid-19, the scheme has been a blessing for many commuters going to school and work. However, what might be imperceptible for those in charge of Scottish fiscal policy is obvious to the young person only just getting started in life. 

While the age of 22 might seem to be the common age of graduation from either a Bachelors or a Masters degree, it leaves no room for a range of students and working young people who are still dependent on their parents or the state. The generally early start in Scottish universities is standardised, thereby ignoring the people who take gap years to save up or further consider their degrees and futures, as well as those who are unable to follow the normalised schooling trajectory due to physical or mental health issues. By providing free bus travel for only some, the scheme seems to imply that your youth expires at 22 and that you should be financially independent and stable from that point on.

This forcible ageing of the young echoes the entry and ticket fees for places like museums and cinemas in many countries. Although Scotland is a glowing example of free museums, cheap cinemas – if you ignore the popcorn – and now free bus travel, there is always room for improvement.

In Luxembourg, free public transport was implemented in March 2020; trains, trams and buses became 100% state-funded. As a result, use of private vehicles has fallen by 11% and use of public transportation has climbed by 25%, clearing the roads of traffic and diminishing the pollution in the air. Naturally, some people will still own and drive their cars to and from work, but the country is creating a culture of easy use and access to comparatively low-emission transportation, as well as subsidising electric cars. I grew up in Luxembourg – buses were always unofficially free, with some bus drivers even laughing if you tried to pay. Now, the threat of a ticket conductor is no longer there. To further help the environment, the state has also promised to make all buses electric by 2030 and consistently raise the carbon tax heavily. 

Following in Luxembourg’s footsteps, Estonia and Malta have adopted similarly sustainable programs that eliminate transport fares for everyone. Crucially, testimonials from residents prove that students and young people are taking advantage of the programmes to get around without a car or paying for petrol. A similar change in Scotland could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps by including more people in the scheme. Although newer cars are more fuel efficient and therefore emitting less CO2, the shift is happening slowly and with setbacks. With First Glasgow’s Zero Emission Mission in full swing, it would be advantageous for the environment to get more young people on city buses, rather than have those same privatised bus companies raise fares for everyone else.

It’s easy to complain about being left out or ageing out of the scheme (which is what I’ve done here). But, the environment can only benefit from fewer CO2 emissions. Not only are we still young people in our 20s, but in the context of the cost of living crisis and housing emergency, many of us simply cannot afford to dish out an extra £5 every day. Walking is fine, great even, but being cheap about everything just to save money gets tiring.


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