Catania is a medium-sized city (300,000 inhabitants) located in southern Italy, where University students have been offered Fare-Free Public Transport (FFPT) since October 2018. This strategy is one of the main results of a strict collaboration between the Mobility Management office of the University of Catania, and two local Public Transport (PT) operators, providing bus and metro transport services in the city.
Traffic congestion, limited PT use, little cycling and walking for systematic trips, are among the main critical issues of mobility in Catania. FFPT for students goes beyond the mobility issues and can be regarded as a social policy of the University of Catania (UNICT) aimed at improving the welfare and the quality of life of its students. First results based on a survey show the big impact of this policy on students’ behaviour, and pave the way for future steps, where constant monitoring of PT level of service, together with students’ experience, will be fundamental to improve PT and promote a paradigm change in transport
Catania is a medium-sized city (300,000 inhabitants) located in the eastern part of Sicily (Italy). Its transport system suffers from critical issues including road traffic congestion, low public transit ridership, little diffusion of cycling and walking for systematic trips, and high levels of fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per capita. It is one of the Italian cities with the highest private car mode-share, with an estimated 70 private cars per 100 inhabitants (2017).
Catania can be considered a “student city”, with one of the oldest Universities in Italy. In this respect, the University of Catania (UNICT) was founded in 1434 and counts about 40,000 students, 1,000 professors and researchers, 1,000 staff, 17 departments, 100 different degree courses, and 18 Ph.D. courses. University sites are clustered in two main areas; the Science and Technology Campus in the north of the city and the Social Science and Humanities departments in the city centre.
One of UNICT missions was to increase the accessibility of University sites by PT. To this purpose, UNICT cooperated with the Municipality of Catania for the design and implementation of the first Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line serving the campus located in the northern part of the city. It started its service in 2013 and today it is the most used bus line by students with a maximum flow of 800 students per hour in the peak hour.
In 2017, a new metro station opened near a high-demand district, including the abovementioned campus, other University sites, health-care services and a park-and-ride (P&R) facility serving the University dwellers and residents - although it is difficult to access due to hilly terrain and poor pedestrian infrastructure. UNICT, the Municipality of Catania and the metro company operator made a deal to cover the last mile by a Metro Shuttle (MS) bus service. It runs every 10 minutes in coordination with the metro schedule. Today 5,000 students use the combination Metro plus Metro Shuttle to reach the university destinations In October 2018, the last and most important effort of UNICT so far was to allow free unlimited access to all 40,000 regularly enrolled students to all the urban public transport network (50 bus lines, 1 metro line, 1 shuttle service and 3 park-and-ride facilities), both weekdays and weekends with accesses reserved at each metro station. Ph.D. students, Erasmus students and trainee doctors are also included in the programme.
The right to access higher education now includes access to sustainable and affordable mobility. In this respect, this initiative should be considered as a social strategy, in addition to a transport strategy contributing to reducing emissions, pollution, and congestion. PT becomes an essential part of the students' right to study. Besides, it can be regarded as the first step to adhere to UN Agenda 2030 objectives for Sustainable Development.
The initiative has been recognised as best practice for urban sustainability at the “Ecomondo Expo” organised by Legambiente for the green and circular economy, in Rimini, Italy in November 2018. The initiative was also recognised in the Contest of “Best Practices on Sustainable Mobility at Universities”, by the U-MOB project partners during the “II European Conference on Sustainable Mobility at Universities” (which took place in KraKow on March 14 -15, 2019).
The most important indicator of success is the distribution of students according to the prevalent mode of transport used to access university sites. Analysis of the data collected in 2019 show that public transport share is 46.3% (including half of the answers that state the combined use of a car and public transport) while using the data of a similar survey made in 2016 (450 respondents), only report 27.0% of public transport travel mode use. Private car use has dropped from 50% in 2016 to 26% in 2019. This impressive output is due to the combination of a relevant improvement of the transit supply (metro extension and related shuttle services) and, more recently, to the fare-free initiative. All people and residents of Catania - and the environment as well – will benefit for this car ridership reduction
The “You study, you travel free” program has been ongoing since 2018. It has the potential to produce many benefits. It can reduce parking demand, improve students’ mobility, and reduce the cost of attending the university classes, which is quite important in areas with disadvantaged economic conditions. Transport operators increase total ridership and vehicle load factors while reducing the cost per ride. The city benefits from the reduction of traffic congestion and air pollution.
However, this initiative should be appropriately monitored to record impacts, and to understand if the benefits overcome the overall costs. In this respect, the University pays a “shadow fare” to the transit operators for each regularly enrolled student for unlimited access to the entire PT urban network (bus and metro lines). The increased use of PT fostered by the financial effort of the University strengthens the ability to ask PT operators for a higher quality of operation and service and to local authorities for fleet renewal, new route design and implementation of complimentary services.
The initiative has a social transformative potential for a transition to a sustainable society: students are encouraged to leave their private vehicles and find opportunities to socialise while travelling to and from universities, and also for leisure purposes. They will be the professionals and decision-makers of the future and their experience will be spread to new generations, boosted by the multiplicative effect made possible by social network interaction and connectivity among students.