Free transit passes improve London’s youth and older riders’ mental health and sense of community

By Robbie Webber

Two separate studies from London show that providing free transit passes can improve the sense of belonging, decrease isolation, and improve mental health in both youth and older adults. Adults over 60 and those with disabilities can obtain a Freedom Pass, which allows free travel on almost all London transit. Research in Ageing & Society outlines how free transit not only provides access to health-related goods and services, but also provides social interaction, a feeling of well-being and belonging, and decreases isolation.

Because free transit is a right for older adults, and there is no means testing, transit use is not stigmatized or seen as a transportation choice of last resort. Older adults felt free to travel around the city and interact with the public. Trips can be made at any time, without planning or concern for cost. This increased overall mobility and the web of relationships available to older adults.

A similar set of outcomes was seen in youth in London via the Zip Oyster Card, a transit pass available to those under 16 or full-time students up to age 18. It also allows free transit access throughout London. Judith Green from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine writes that since there is no means testing, groups of teens can travel together without leaving friends behind or worrying about being stranded without a ride home. Again, transit is not stigmatized, but seen as providing freedom.

Youth in London see their access to transit as a way to test out independence, explore areas of the city, and socialize with their peers. Interviewees also reported that riding transit made them “feel like a Londoner,” thereby reinforcing their place in the larger society.

Green argues, “[F]ree bus travel enhanced young Londoners’ capabilities to shape their daily mobility, both directly by increasing financial access and indirectly by facilitating the acquisition of the necessary skills, travelling companions and confidence.”

The positive public health impacts of transit access have been documented in many research papers, but most concentrate on either access to health services for those with few transportation options or the increased physical activity associated with transit use. However, these two studies in London point out that mental health and social connections also can be enhanced by easy transit access.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.