Poor Shane Ross. Offered the chance by Richard Boyd-Barrett to begin moving Ireland’s transport policy into the 21st century, he blew it with a short-sighted, idiotic answer to a parliamentary question. Boyd-Barrett asked if Ross would undertake a cost-benefit analysis of free public transport. Did Ross think long and hard about it? Apparently not. His answer was ‘no’ and for evidence he rolled out the notion that it’d cost the exchequer an extra €600m. Game over? It shouldn’t be.

Consider:

(1) Free public transport is a matter of inclusion, well-being, and happiness. It works for those using the Free Travel Scheme. It permits movement; grants access to the city, the country, to friends and family. Extended to everyone, free public transport would give a massive happiness boost to everyone who wants to get out and about. Inclusion and well-being should be the main argument for free public transport. It’s about ‘the right to the city’ (and the country).

(2) Free public transport – albeit with extra investment (in electric buses; trains fuelled by hydrogen; [gasp!] an underground metro) to deal with rising passenger numbers – would further reduce carbon emissions. We need climate action and Shane Ross, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, should be taking the lead, not obstructing things with daft arguments. He needs to get a grip and realise what we’re dealing with. The sooner we get people out of cars, onto bikes, onto buses and trains, the better. Let’s go.

(3) Free public transport makes the overall transport system more efficient and kinder. It could reduce the dwell time while buses wait for passengers to alight: no more hanging about as everyone taps their Leap card or pays the driver. Buses and trains could eradicate spending on the hardware and software used to collect fares. No more barriers. No more lines of tired people at the Dart station while they wait to tap off. And no more fines on the Luas for the unaware tourist who didn’t realise they needed to tag on. In short, the system would be more efficient and less authoritarian. Staff on the Luas or Irish Rail could spend more of their time helping people. What are we waiting for?

(4) Free public transport can make Ireland’s cities better places to live, or at least work. Congestion costs a fortune and is exhausting. It also stinks, pollutes the air, and causes asthma. For the thousands of workers who can’t afford to live in urban areas, moreover, free public transport to their job in the city puts more money in their pocket to be spent on what they care about (kids, eating out, holidays, whatever).

(5) Finally, Ireland’s tourists spent €4.9bn in 2017. 13% was spent on transport. That’s €637m, although of course some of this covers taxis. Free public transport permits tourists to spend (OK, some of) that money in restaurants or visitor attractions. Jobs. Happier tourists. A more balanced tourism market across the country. And if we made free public transport a cornerstone of Fáilte Ireland’s marketing campaign, surely more tourists would be tempted to visit. If nothing else, the country sends a message: come and move around; you’re welcome. Here is (at least a big chunk of) the €600m that blind-sided Shane Ross.

Can we just get on with making this country better now?

Alistair Fraser