Helen Clark Foundation joins calls to make public transport free for low-income groups, under-25s to increase equity and reduce emissions

The Helen Clark Foundation is backing calls to make public transport free for low-income groups.
The Helen Clark Foundation is backing calls to make public transport free for low-income groups. Photo credit: Getty Images

The Helen Clark Foundation is backing calls for the Government to make public transport free for low-income groups as a campaign lobbying for free fares for tertiary students, under-25s and vulnerable New Zealanders gains traction.

On Thursday morning, the non-profit public policy think tank - of which former Prime Minister Helen Clark is the Patron - released 'Te Are Matatiki: The Fair Path', a report outlining why transport matters for equity, and how Aotearoa can transition to low-traffic cities to reduce carbon emissions. Among its recommendations, the report suggested subsidising public transport fares for disadvantaged or lower-income groups, such as under-25s and Community Services Card holders.

The research comes as the Free Fares campaign, an initiative run by the Aotearoa Collective for Public Transport Equity, gains traction. The campaign is calling on the Government to fund free fares for public transport to address rising living costs and associated poverty, reduce harmful carbon emissions, and decrease congestion on the roads.

The movement is asking for free public transport across all of Aotearoa, at all times, for tertiary students, under-25s, and holders of a Community Services Card - a scheme that lowers the cost of healthcare for New Zealanders who are on a low income, are in public housing, or are receiving an accommodation supplement.

"We believe these groups are the right place to start, because they represent a large portion of public transport users who rely on the service the most, but are the most likely not to afford it," the Free Fares campaign says on its website.

"With the high cost of public transport, many people can only afford to travel by private car, causing congestion and harmful carbon emissions. Some people don't travel at all, and their wellbeing and communities suffer as a result.

"With housing costs and other expenses rising, many Community Service Card holders and tertiary students find that a regular $3 bus ticket is out of reach… While the Government is committing to take action to reduce emissions and improve equity, now is the time to take this step."

With submissions to the Emissions Reduction Plan closing on November 24, the Helen Clark Foundation's research demonstrates why New Zealand needs to shift away from carbon-emitting private vehicles and towards carbon-neutral public and active transport, Free Fares said on Thursday.

The first emissions reduction plan will set the direction for climate action for the next 15 years. It hopes to set the path to meeting the target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 through policies and strategies for specific sectors, including transport. One of the plan's key aims is to reduce reliance on cars and support people to walk, cycle and use public transport. 

The Foundation's 'Fair Path' report outlines five recommendations that the campaign says are all clearly supportive of their cause. The fifth recommendation, 'Kickstart the transition', calls on the Government to make "a bold intervention" to incentivise a rapid shift from private vehicles to public transport, such as making fares free for "a sizeable target group", including under-25s and Community Services Card holders.

In order to get commuters out of their cars and rapidly decarbonise our cities, Dr Rowan Dixon, the technical principal for Sustainability & Resilience at WSP and contributor to the report, suggested that the Government should be "supercharg[ing] incentives for public transport".

"It is a clear, strong, and compelling argument which the [Transport] Minister [Michael Wood] must listen to," Free Fares said.

The report also comments on some sobering realities. For our most disadvantaged communities, those on the lowest incomes, 28 percent of their household income on average is spent on transport. Comparatively, transport costs take up just 8 percent for those in the highest income groups. 

"People are missing urgent healthcare appointments, school events, family outings, court appointments, job interviews, and everything in between. Māori are some of our most disadvantaged when it comes to this, with GP appointments being missed due to a lack of transport at over three times the rate of Pākeha. Providing free public transport for Community Services Card Holders in specific could help to reduce that barrier for the worst off, and prevent wider societal issues like inaccessibility to healthcare," Free Fares said.

"As part of the lead-up to the Emissions Reduction Plan submissions closing, it is incredibly important that we understand how much of an impact this policy could have. Put simply: it could remove hundreds of thousands of car trips from our roads, if the Gold Card is anything to go by."

Currently, the Government offers the SuperGold Card to people aged over 65. It is organised through the Ministry of Social Development as a 'thank you' to older New Zealanders for their contributions. The card offers discounts and specials, such as savings on essential services and free off-peak public transport.

Free Fares also spoke to some of the New Zealanders who contributed their views to the Foundation's report. A Christchurch mother-of-four, who does not drive, says she is reliant on the city's buses to access many services that are not within a walkable distance. 

"I note the heavy use of buses by my elderly neighbours and those with mobility issues who too are reliant on this means of transportation. The use of free services to Gold Card users is incredibly helpful to a large group of people on a limited income," she said.

Meanwhile, an Auckland student told the campaign that free public transport would allow everyone to have an "equitable chance at succeeding educationally".

"As someone that pays significant weekly costs for public transportation to uni, this would make a huge difference to my access to learning and resources."

The five recommendations outlined in the Foundation's report are 'reprogramme' the transport system; make sure the transition is tika (right and just); reduce the overall need to travel; make sure the costs and benefits fall in the right place; and kickstart the transition.

The Aotearoa Collective for Public Transport Equity is currently petitioning for Transport Minister Michael Wood to implement free public transport for Community Service Card holders, full-and part-time tertiary students, and under-25s nationwide. The group wants to see fares fully funded by the central government in Budget 2022 with the free fares beginning in 2023.

"We also acknowledge the need for this government to reduce fares for all other passengers and to increase the reach, frequency and quality of services in underserved areas," the petition reads. At the time of writing, it has almost reached its goal of 5000 signatures.

You can read the Helen Clark Foundation's full report here.