tubepackedThe weekend before last, to my surprise, the Scottish Greens’ conference rejected a motion calling for free public transport. I don’t know why conference opposed it, but I know why I did, and why I spoke against. Here’s the motion:

We will make a phased introduction of free public transport as finance becomes available. Through both local and national schemes, we will make bus, train, tram, underground and foot-ferry services fare-free, with free bus services the first priority.

I had been pretty anxious about this vote. Everyone at a Green conference loves public transport, and everyone wants to see it displace car and plane travel in particular. But this approach would be thoroughly flawed, and would undermine the existing public transport network while missing opportunities to tackle inequalities.

The first and most obvious problem is the money. Fares on our current transport network bring in a substantial sum of money to contribute to its costs. In 2010-11, bus, train and ferry tickets in Scotland brought in around £750m. I was advised after the meeting that the most recent figures are actually over a billion pounds. That’s equivalent to around half Transport Scotland’s budget, and yes, I’m aware that a lot of that is wasted on vanity roads schemes like the additional Forth Crossing.

A billion pounds, though, is also four times the cost of building Glasgow Crossrail and reopening Edinburgh’s South Suburban railway. Every year. To call for the expansion of the public transport network, as we do, and then to make it all free? Apologies to the comrades, but that’s SSP economics, i.e. uncosted and un-thought-through handwaving. There’s no point even aiming for something if you can’t work out whether you could ever get there.

The second problem is usage. Imagine how busy our buses and trains would become if they were free for all. These networks are creaking already. The preamble to the motion talked about a town in Belgium (note, not an intercity network or one that covers vast rural areas) which saw a 1,300% increase in usage when it made public transport free. I pretty regularly take Scotland’s busiest rail journey: Edinburgh to Glasgow Queen Street. It’s regularly full to bursting, even with four trains an hour at the busiest times. I can’t even imagine what it would look like if it were thirteen times more full, especially without thirteen times the ticket revenue to support expansion. Sure, there are four routes between the two cities, and the others can be less busy, but even so, it just doesn’t add up. To make sufficient capacity for every person in Scotland to use trains, buses and ferries on a whim would cost billions more. Without that, the result would be a miserable and virtually unusable service, one that would cost almost incalculably more, and one where the better off would tend to retreat to their cars. And this plan would use vastly more energy and other resources: a nation constantly on the go on a whim, jammed into continuous trains and buses isn’t a vision of the green future I want to see.

I’m all for radical shifts in spending, mind. But if we want to spend more money on public transport, and I do, that wouldn’t be my preference. It wouldn’t even feature at any point before we have cracked resource depletion, energy costs, and social inequality. Why should we be making it cheaper to get a bus than it is to get on a bike? Counting shoe-leather, this would make a bus cheaper than walking: and those two ways of getting about, for those who can, should be the top priority. Let’s spend some of this same money on proper bike networks and support for much wider active travel.

Let’s also invest more in all forms of public transport instead. Buses get neglected: let’s re-regulate them, and work towards bringing them back in-house (trains too). Let’s subsidise those rural routes even further. Let’s gradually reopen rail lines (one of the modest transport success stories of devolution). Let’s expand the network, not make the current limited system unusable.

And yes, let’s cap fares or reduce them if we can. But before that we should be looking to waive fares for more people. We already have free travel for pensioners: let’s not give a subsidy to companies sending their employees to meetings or tourists heading to the Highlands. We could instead extend that free travel to those on benefits, those earning the minimum wage, those in education, carers – any number of groups for whom this would make a real difference. It’s not like the NHS or education – I don’t think infinite travel for work and leisure should be subsidised for the better off, whereas I do think everyone should be treated for free and educated for free irrespective of income. But imagine if those currently on the wrong end of austerity didn’t have to pay to get to job interviews or the job centre, if they could take their family away to somewhere nice with a beach for nothing of a weekend, or if they could visit friends elsewhere in the country with ease. It’d be transformative. I’d still be paying to go pitch my company’s wares to organisations in Glasgow, too: and rightly so.

Expanding the network, supporting active travel, and ending fares for those for whom it would make a real difference: that would fuse our social justice and sustainability objectives. Pipedreams about free transport are superficially appealing, but would in practice push the wrong way on both those objectives.