Barcelona Offers Free Transit to Residents Who Ditch Their Cars

What other innovative public schemes are out there that encourage a decrease in car dependence?

Plaça d'espanya (Plaza de españa - spain square) long exposure at sunset in Barcelona
Eloi_Omella / Getty Images

There have been questions in the past about traditional Cash for Clunkers initiatives—programs that provide a cash incentive to scrap an old, polluting car and replace it with something more fuel-efficient. While the general concept might make some sense, both the Return On Investment and the environmental benefit can be hard to quantify, especially once the embodied carbon of building new cars is taken into account. 

Around the world, however, there are tentative attempts at launching a different type of Cash for Clunkers program—one that discourages car ownership altogether. In Barcelona, for example, citizens who choose to get rid of an older and less efficient car are not necessarily given just cash. Instead, they get a free transit travel pass that’s valid for three years.

Here are the details of the offer from Barcelona’s transit agency: 

People living in the metropolitan area who decide to get rid of and decommission a vehicle without an environmental certificate can benefit from the T-verda, a new travel card that is free for three years. This card is personal and non-transferable (featuring the person’s name and DNI/NIE number) and must be validated on each journey. The card is automatically renewed annually at no additional cost to the beneficiary and is sent to their home address.

Meanwhile, Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter noted earlier this year that both France and Finland have been offering incentives for drivers to trade in their old cars for an e-bike instead. (In Finland, the initiative allows users to choose between transit passes, incentives toward a newer car, or an e-bike.) 

This is all very encouraging. Even though electric cars are significantly better than we already thought, when compared to gas cars, they are still extremely expensive and resource-intensive to produce. Given that public budgets are limited, we should be looking to maximize any funds spent on these schemes to achieve the greatest possible reduction in emissions. As Alter also noted in his article about the French scheme, some researchers have found that initiatives promoting bikes and e-bikes are twice as cost-effective as those promoting electric cars. 

In the case of the Barcelona initiative, that may be a significant understatement. After all, a large percentage of costs that go into running a city’s public transit network are essentially fixed costs. The trains and buses have already been purchased. The routes are already operating. The cost of providing an individual with free transit—especially if they were previously driving—is not going to be particularly onerous. That’s especially true once you factor in the huge savings to the public purse that comes from having fewer cars on the road, fewer emissions in the air, healthier and more active citizens, and less wear and tear to the roads too.

It’s also important to remember that humans are not particularly rational beings, nor are many of us that good at math. What would be interesting to see, then, is not just how much a city spends on initiatives like these, but also how much the recipient—meaning the person choosing to cash in their clunker—values what they receive. After all, free transit for three years isn’t just about the direct monetary cost that’s saved, it’s also about the mental freedom of not having to worry about your transportation costs (or car maintenance!) as part of your monthly budget. One can imagine that in an expensive city like Barcelona, that might mean a lot—especially when it frees you up to travel on transportation like these: 

What other innovative public schemes are out there that encourage a decrease in car dependence? I would love to see suggestions and leads in the comments below.