Could London's Public Transport Ever Be Free?

Harry Rosehill
By Harry Rosehill Last edited 74 months ago

Last Updated 18 April 2018

Could London's Public Transport Ever Be Free?

How much do you spend a month on transport? £50? £100? £200? More? Imagine a world where your wallet would stay absolutely untouched by transport costs.

It sounds like an unattainable fantasy, but soon people in five German cities won't have to imagine. Citizens of Bohn, Essen, Herrenberg, Reutinglen and Mannheim will experience free public transport by the end of the year according to German media.

It's part of a plan to reduce emissions, by getting people out of their cars and using public transport. So, we decided to take a look at whether this could ever work on TfL services in London.


Air pollution is the impetus of the German scheme, but London has similar problems.

Every single Londoner breathes dangerous levels of toxic air particle daily. Over 9,000 Londoners die prematurely each year from it. Clearly something needs to be done, and reducing the number of private vehicles on the street is a positive move in this regard. However, research shows that taking the Underground is by no means an escape from it.

There is another factor here. Brexit. Germany's radical policy comes from pressure and the fear of fines from the EU for breaching air pollution limits. As of 29 March 2019, Britain will no longer be subject to these EU rules, so has less to fear. This doesn't necessarily mean air pollution will fall off the agenda, just that there's less to stop it doing so.


It's no secret that TfL is currently in a rough financial state due to slashing of its government funding. Making public transport free would be unachievable unless is were to regain its subsidies, but that's hardly the modus operandi of the current government.

So how could the complete loss in ticket and travelcard sales be made up for? Advertising.

That's right, TfL would have to go the NME route — but hopefully with more success — signing its soul away to advertisers. With more people using the network, TfL would be able to charge higher rates per advert. They also might have to find more ways to work advertisers into the network.

That's not as ridiculous as it might sound. Back when the tube launched in the Victorian era it had a sponsorship deal in place with Bovril. Each station might get its own individual sponsor — perhaps Andrex could sponsor Mudchute.

All joking aside, as with all public services in Britain, cost is at the heart of this.

Would free public transport make it unbearably crowded?

Packed like sardines

TfL services are already very busy. The German scheme aims to turn people towards an underused option — German cities are much more dependent on commuting by car — whereas in London, TfL already nudges people not to use the tube at peak times because of how congested it is.

Journey numbers have fallen recently, but some believe that this is related to the rising cost. If that was removed, it isn't naive to assume that passenger number would rise. Would TfL — and our squished bodies — be able to cope?


At the moment, nigh on impossible. TfL doesn't have the money, space or impetus to make the city's transport free.

A change of government might make it a tad more likely — Jeremy Corbyn has pledged free bus travel for those under 25 — but even then don't hold your breath.

What if it did happen?

Look, we know it won't, but just humour us for a minute. Imagine a world where all TfL services went free...

How about all the confusion when changing between TfL and National Rail services, with passengers claiming they didn't know that mainline trains weren't also free.

A world where ticket barriers become redundant and are instead repurposed into entrances for trendy speakeasies, adorned with antiquities.

Most likely though, rents in London would go up, as greedy landlords try and claim that extra cash for themselves.