Towards a practice of fare-free sustainability

Level: mittel
Roxana Erath | Exploring Economics, 2018
Towards a practice of fare-free sustainability

Perspektiven: Institutionenökonomik, Ökologische Ökonomik
Thema: Ressourcen & Umwelt
Format: Text

Towards a practice of fare-free sustainability

Author: Roxana Erath

Review: Mirijam Mock

This is an essay of the writing workshop Socio-Ecological Economics, published on 1 October 2018

1. Introduction

The environmental impact of transport is fatal and significant. In fact, twenty-one percent of CO2 emissions in Germany are caused by traffic (Waluga 2014:37). Transport is a major source of energy consumption, as well as a significant contributor to global warming. At this point in time, Germany is not projected to achieve its environmental objectives regarding carbon emissions, and is being taken to court over air pollution; a total of six EU countries are facing charges by the European Court of Justice for exceeding maximum limits of particulate matter and nitric oxides. The European Commission predicts that exhaust pollution alone causes 400,000 premature deaths annually (Romann 2018; Eder 2018). In this sense, the intersection between nature, climate, and the health of human life cannot be separated. Action is urgent in multiple domains.

This article will focus on fare-free public transport as one contribution in tackling pollution and climate change. How can we establish new institutions and practices in order to use fare-free public transport as a beacon for sustainable mobility and a low-carbon lifestyle? We need to think further than putting numbers on emissions and their potentially fatal impact on global warming. Socio-ecological economics provides us with an interesting field of theories and approaches. In answering the previous question, practice theory and institutional economics are applied to fare-free public transport. The elaboration on how social networks, practices, deliberation and institutions might help in pursuing the goal of reduced emissions through changes in transport modality. The basic hypothesis motivating an investigation of fare-free public transport is that people would rather chose public transport instead of private means of transportation on the one side, as well as the potential debate on sustainable means of transportation prompted in society by offering fare-free public transport.

In February, the Department of Environment, the Ministry of Transport and head of the chancellery Altmeier sent a letter to the EU environment commissioner Vella suggesting the introduction of fare-free public transport in several German test-run cities. It was reprimanded by some German politicians as well as the German government itself soon after the discussion was launched, but it is neither a new idea nor is it merely an idea (Röderer 2018; dpa 2018). Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia, with 445,000 inhabitants is the largest city offering fare-free public transport to its residents (Hess 2017:692). Other cities like Templin (Germany), Hasselt (Belgium) or Seattle and Portland (United States) cancelled the projects after not being able or willing to afford it any longer (Sywottek 2017).

Section 2 starts out with the theoretical underpinning of the potential of fare-free public transport from Elizabeth Shove’s perspective and practice theory. Section 3 introduces Elinor Ostrom’s theory of the commons and an institutional economics’ perspective. The last section provides the reader of this theoretical account with some ‘hard facts’ on the conclusion and proposed policy implications.

2. Practice Theory

Shove’s theory of practice prioritizes neither agency nor structure (2012:22). Rather, both commonality and local variation (i.e. differences between regions) are relevant (2012:25). The structure for elaboration, enhancement and criticism is set by practice theory in order to set a comprehensible framework for detecting the distinctiveness, overlaps and additions of other theories. In Taylor’s terms practices are defined as modes of social relation and mutual action (1971:27). In Reckwitz’ understanding, they are “patterns which can be filled out” (2002: 250). For Shove, practices consist of elements clustered in material, competence and meaning. The “practices emerge, persist and disappear as links between their defining elements are made and broken” (2012:21). In reference to public transport, material may refer to the carriage design and engines, competence is some ability to use public transport and know how it works, and meaning refers to associations and prestige connected to a particular form of transportation (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:29).

Where does the individual actor come in? Regardless of regional concept, political regime, social group, circle of friends, or family, an individual may potentially belong to multiple communities as a citizen of a state. Thus, he or she can be engaged in different networks by sharing and establishing various practices (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:68). It then goes without saying that certain networks, groups of people, or even organizations (public or private) promote different interests and hold certain power positions. There is much debate as to how power is related to practices. As “all social relations are constituted and reproduced through practices,” practice theory also “must be able to account for power” (Watson 2017:1). This then depends on (a) a definition of power and (b) a concept of practice and its applicability. Shove et al. do not go into much detail on how power operates within practice, but Watson provides some explanation of how power and practice concepts are defined by Bourdieu and Foucault. Bourdieu believes they can be broken down into the conceptualisations he provides for the reproduction of unequal distributions on the capacity to act (Watson 2017:4). Foucault conceptualizes governments as a means of shaping the conduct and behaviour of others (Watson 2017:6). Governing is deemed to be the way in which financial resources, information, and threat of force is coordinated and marshalled (Watson 2017:8). Thus, “change is likely to entail and come through changes in power relations and purposive change will involve engaging in and with existing dominant power relations” (Watson 2017:11). Networks may attribute meaning to preferences in the transport sector. The discrepancy between the presence, range and bargaining power between different groups and networks may be termed ‘domination of certain projects over others’ (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:79, 135).

"Different individuals stand to gain or lose as certain practices take hold and as others disappear. With auto-mobility, as with much else, the emergence of practice complexes is of direct consequence for shifting distributions of goods and bads within society"(Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:135).


Now, where does the state come in? It emerges when providing information about climate change or posing questions that the rider takes to others in the networks in which they are engaged. This promotes the opening of new spaces that allow for the shaping and questioning norms, attitudes and practices.

"There is quite some debate about how far governments could or should go in […] manipulating individual ambitions […]. Such discussions circle around a number of tougher questions about the legitimacy of state involvement in shaping preferences, encouraging deliberation, structuring options and ‘nudging’ individuals towards sustainability, or indeed any other policy goal"[1] (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:141).


Shove argues that “policy makers need to intervene in the dynamics of practice if they are to have any chance of promoting healthier, more sustainable ways of life” (2012:19). Another reason for mingling the agency of individuals and social or interest groups with those of policy makers is that this is the only means to step out of a merely structural or theoretical realm, especially as “policy makers are by implication themselves part of the patterns, systems and social arrangements they hope to govern” (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:145). As Shove’s approach is not ahistorical and previous patterns need to be considered, how new meanings and practices are developed is a highly context-sensitive matter (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:57). But how exactly is change meant to happen? According to Shove et al, it:

"is not a matter of pursuing pre-defined outcomes by means of manipulating driving or obstructing factors [but rather] a process-based succession of steps […] anchored in and never detached from the details and specifities of the practices in question" (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:145).


This is where social trends and values are vital for change and development. Shove argues that “the idea that there might be societal trends is hugely important for the dynamics of social practice” (2012:115). “Behaviour as a matter of individual choice” is deemed to be influenced by “social norms, habit and more rational considerations of price” (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:18). Transferring this to modes of more sustainable transport includes manipulating the meanings and norms connected to mobility, environmental consciousness, and the relationships reinforcing those modes in a certain community. To summarize:

"governments are thought to have a vital role in building networks and coalitions and in constructing partnerships that make the conditions of practice possible. To the extent that state actors do ‘change behaviour’ on any scale it is through these means, and not by dint of persuading individuals to modify their ways” (Shove, Pantzar, and Watson 2012:162).


More particularly this is expressed in Shove’s critique of the ABC model[2] using the example of sustainability and transport:

"At the moment, large sums are spent surveying individual responses to batteries of attitudinal questions about the environment. This sort of information is of little value if the aim is to understand and potentially shape the range of practices of which contemporary society is formed. If that is the central question, other sorts of data and other styles of enquiry are required. These might include concerted and innovative efforts to quantify the growth of certain practices and the demise or transformation of others. […] As mentioned above, this argues for cross-sectoral analyses of how policy making of all forms influences the texture and rhythm of daily life, and with what consequence for patterns of mobility or of energy consumption, […] about where responsibility lies for defining and facilitating conditions in which more sustainable ways of life might take hold" (2012:163-64).

3. Institutional Economic Theory – Governing the Commons

If we assume an open-ended result and rational individuals, how are they to decide in favour of a sustainable way of life in the long-run if they could have short-term gains? Why bring in Ostrom’s Governing the Commons where she deals with so-called CPRs (Common-Pool Resources) and takes homo economicus as unit of analysis instead of the seemingly more fluid concept of ever-evolving practices? It is in order to think about practice theory more broadly, but also to make the two theories work towards a shared goal. While Ostrom stresses the agency of individuals and their collaborative potential in governing resources without well-defined individual property rights, she makes a strong claim for their potential to do this in a self-sustaining way. She lays down her claims in several case studies. The example that is most interesting for the transport sector is energy infrastructure built and shared efficiently by American farmer communities. It is not only about commonalities and their citizens building their own infrastructure but also the potential of connecting different discussions and issues around transportation through a holistic point of view.

Energy and roads are important parts of transportation and infrastructure. The role of the government, in Ostrom’s understanding, is to monitor and provide neutral information in order to counter a self-serving bias (Ostrom 1990:212, Mansbridge 2014:8). Another interesting example can be seen in several public utility companies who produce energy based on what those regions offer and get financial support and capital from their citizens as well as from inhabitants of other regions. This could be wind, water or solar energy embedded in an effective institutional design on local level that is cross-linked with the communities’ mode of mobility. Mansbridge, who interpreted Ostrom’s concept of the state in this way, claims that, “state action is not antithetical to local knowledge and effective organization [but] that higher level institutions are necessary to solve CPR problems” (Mansbridge 2014:8). 

How is public transport related to CPRs in this case? There are two aspects to be considered if it is fare-free public transport: First, crowding effects or overuse might be the case, which is deemed typical of the non-excludability of CPRs but usually absent for public goods. Secondly, Mansbridge sees the chance for collaborative “governance” or engagement, as it would make people “think of themselves as cohesive entity” that “sincerely want[s] to do what’s the right [thing to do] for that entity” (Mansbridge 2009:17).

IEE, or Institutional Ecological Economics, developed by Paavola and Vatn, independently sheds an interesting spotlight on institutions as one means of structuring social behaviour. This is because Ostrom is another representative of institutional economics. As she explains, “most environmental problems involve physically ‘non-demarcatable objects and processes’ and the need for ‘forming or protecting the common good’ under the perspective that it should serve a community of people” (Douai and Montalban 2012:1209). Thus, this approach may well apply to equal access to mobility. Furthermore, the authors argue that “environmental conflicts should become value conflicts, because what is at stake is the common good” (Douai and Montalban 2012:1213). Both approaches take up the rationality concept of homo economicus as well as norms guiding human behaviour. The article similarly gives institutions the agency to “create new social interactions” (Douai and Montalban 2012:1210).

4. Financial and Behavioural Aspects

Depending on the model for financing fare-free public transport, ridership may also be given a stronger voice in how to clock, maintain or enlarge public transport according to the needs of different neighbourhoods and social groups. I will, however, stay vague on the topic of financing as this is idiosyncratic to different countries and legal systems. For some it might be most sensible to introduce a certain tax; for others the investment needs to come from national level (‘Konnexitätsprinzip’); still others are not allowed to transfer money from one asset to finance another, in which case some creativity is needed (citizen funds are one possibility, which is much-debated as it may offer municipalities’ funding but also the possibility to open up shadow budgets).

We see that financing transportation is more than a question of organization. Rather, it is a multi-dimensional process which is highly connected to the realm of politics and political debate. Similarly, Hess asks how such a program could operate outside of a politicized context, which he deems crucial for its implementation in countries like Estonia (2017:690). Of course, social norms encompass environmental values held and formed. Goals for introducing fare-free public transport in different countries are as manifold as the financing models under different legislations. In Germany this mainly concerns reducing demand for automobiles, Hess argues, while in Belgium the improvement of mobility and quality of life is highlighted, and in the US the primary goal is educating people about public transport (Hess 2017:692).

Those regional differences are also emphasized by price elasticities concerning modes of transport. In Europe

"public transport elasticities are comparable or higher to those in the United States[…]. However, sensitivity to price is greater for service change than price change in general. Of course, there are also typical fare elasticities predicting a 3% fare increase results in a 1% ridership decrease." (Hess 2017:691)


But is it really calculable in such a way if we remove the fare completely? Financing will not disappear completely, which is why we must think about ways of financing public transport with other means—publicly, privately, or individually. On the one hand, “people tend to react strongly and positively when they no longer are charged for something for which they previously paid a fee, since the change translates to real savings” (Hess 2017:693). The estimations of ridership increase range from 20 to 60 percent (Hess 2017:691). In the case of Tallinn, increases in ridership were lower than expected. However, Tallinn does not serve as transferable example because of its unique funding structure. Public transport was financed through taxes the city receives per resident. As soon as fare-free public transport was offered, many people already living there only then registered and became citizens, while others moved to the city (Hess 2017:690).

Sustainable transportation is not only about providing fare-free public transport, but also about the potential of offering zero-emission vehicles. For equal transport capacity, a rule of thumb for gasoline-run engines is that greenhouse gas emissions for cars are more than twice as high as those for buses, trams or the metro (Sywottek 2017). Waluga, who wrote his dissertation on the so-called citizen ticket for public transport, promotes the advantages of joint financing as it offers a stable financial basis and motivates more people to use public transport (2014:37). The behavioural-economic reaction is assumed to show positive correlation with public transport use as access is facilitated for every citizen of a region or city (Waluga 2014:38). As about half of the cost of local transport is financed by the public at large, it is merely a matter of communication to get across the sensitivity of financing and choice-making as acts of solidarity (with others and with our environment) (Waluga 2014:37). Additionally, flat-rate bias (people preferring lump sums over separate payments) and low cost theory are contributing factors. The latter claims that people only act in an eco-sensitive way when the cost is low. Waluga assumes an increase of 20% in public transport usage, doubling the current volume (Waluga 2014:39).

5. Conclusion: Let’s Face the Facts

Establishing new institutions and rules in order to use fare-free public transport as a beacon for sustainable mobility and lifestyle can be detected in several parts of Europe Vienna began offering an annual ticket for 365€, which doubled the number of people using public transport from 2012 to 2016. At the same time, we see a decrease in car traffic in Austria’s capital of 13% since 1993. The chance to offer fares at 1€ a day is only possible if it is also financed by an employer fee at 2€ per employee per week (Sywottek 2017). This is also the case for Aubagne, France, with 45,000 inhabitants and fare-free public transport. In Tübingen, Germany, the mayor (member of the Green Party) suggested a current income-financing model that would include citizens, firms, employers and trade (Waluga 2014:38).

However, in Germany, the municipal subsidies being paid for automobile infrastructure are about 176€ per citizen, while public transport is subsidized by only 141€ per citizen. There is therefore much more room for an emphasis on public transport. If there was a comprehensive financing by the whole society and economy, the weak cost coverage rate of 76% in Germany might be improved (Sywottek 2017). But it is not only federal finances that would improve. Rather, it is profitable on multiple levels. If public transport is transformed into something like a tax-payer supported ‘public good’ like libraries or parks, “everyone pays to support public transport (through taxes or otherwise), and benefits accrue to users (directly, by not having to pay a fare) and everyone (indirectly)” (Hess 2017:691) by contributing to fighting global warming. A fare-free public transport would cost about €24 billion per year in Germany. At the moment ticket sales generate proceeds at about €12 billion. According to Prof Monheim, a traffic and transport researcher at the University of Trier, this sum could also be financed partially by annual subsidies for diesel and company cars in Germany at €8 billion and €3 billion, respectively.

It is too simplistic to suggest these numbers as the solution. However, society and politics need to consider what is being funded in which way and continually ask themselves whether the course taken is still appropriate or if it needs some readjustment. Being critical and open-minded means to discuss things seriously as they are, instead of discounting such progress as a “crackpot idea” (Röderer 2018). Waluga does not neglect but rather presupposes broad acceptance in the community before the introduction of a civic ticket is feasible (2014:41). Oskar Reutter (Wuppertal Institut) similarly calls for incentives on both sides, which means offering fare-free public transport while increasing the price for automobile use (Sywottek 2017). The potential of multi-modality and connections of public transport, car sharing and city bike sharing included in one civic ticket should be considered as an outlook on the direction the discussion on sustainable public transport and its cross-over effects on a comprehensive sustainable lifestyle may take in the future. This essay shows how practice theory and institutional economics may close in on pursuing that goal.


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[1] see Thaler and Sunstein for further literature on so-called ‘nudging’

[2] The ABC model focuses on a punctual action of choice inspired by attitudes the individuals hold (the letters ABC stand for attitude, behaviour and choice, whereas practice theory focuses on the dynamic aspect of practices.