Notes from the field: fare-free on-demand public transport in Castile and León

written by:

Monika Maciejewska, Merlin Gillard and Wojciech Keblowski

In October 2022 our team went to Castile and León, one of Spain’s most rural and depopulated regions, to explore the local public transport system. What is so special about it? The local transport system, organised by the regional authorities, is both fare-free and on-demand.

This is Europe’s largest on-demand public transport network, to the best of our knowledge, given the region’s sheer size — comparable to that of Hungary or Portugal. At the same time, it is one of the few fare-free public transport networks that operate in rural areas. Similar practices, albeit operating at a much smaller scale, can be found in Estonia and Luxembourg.

During our visit, we used the system extensively in different locations across the provinces of Palencia and Segovia. We also met with r/urban and regional authorities. Our goal was to understand how the system operates and how abolishing fares has affected passengers and public transport workers.

Picture of a bus stop on the side of a road in a mountainous landscape, at dawn. The bus shelter is made out of orange concrete, glass, with a red tile roof.

Picture of a bus shelter on the side of concrete road, in an arid landscape, with a village in the background. The bus shelter is made out of white concrete bricks. A bench is inside the shelter, and an impression of a Spanish flag is painted on the background wall.

How does this system work?

On-demand services operated mostly by vans and mid-sized buses was first organised in Castile and León in 2005. Back then a bus ride cost 1€. Last year the regional authorities took a step further and made the services fare-free. The on-demand and fare-free system does not embrace all public services operating in the region. Rather, it concerns bus services that connect small villages with a nearby comarca capital (a comarca is equivalent to a county). Villages across the region suffer from severe depopulation and erosion of both public and private services. In many of them there are no shops or doctors left, which is a serious issue for increasingly elderly residents. Therefore, a fare-free bus is meant to provide a connection to healthcare facilities, local markets, and socio-cultural institutions. The basic principle is that people who continue living in increasingly empty Spain (nicknamed España vaciada), should not pay for accessing basic services. “Why should one pay to go to the doctor, when the consulting doctor is free of charge?” was one of the arguments we heard several times.

Picture of a few people boarding a blue mini-bus on the side of a road in a small town. On its windshield, a paper sign reads 'Demanda'. One elderly woman is boarding the vehicle, and another one is waiting behind her, carrying a bag and a cane. A few younger adults are chatting behind them.

To access the fare-free buses, one has to obtain a pass called bono rural, by signing up to an application using a Spanish ID number. This produces a QR code that the driver can scan. For those who do not or cannot use a smartphone, they can pay a 5€ deposit to obtain a physical card with its own QR code.

Picture of a gold-coloured coach parked at a bus station, with a sign on its windshield indicating it is a schoolbus. A few plastic chairs are laid out on the sidewalk.

As the buses run only on demand, passengers need to reserve their trip in advance, at least 24 hours before, online or by calling a free phone line. Next, the staff employed by the regional authorities inform the private operator of the bus, subcontracted by the region, that a new passenger has requested a trip. However, although the buses are on-demand, the passengers do not get to choose the exact schedule of their journey. The buses have timetables: usually, the early morning bus departs from small direction towards the comarca seat, and returns in the early afternoon. Sometimes the buses match school bus timetables: since 2021 on-demand transport has been increasingly combined with school transport.

Researching fare-free on-demand public transport

Picture of four people (transport officials and researchers) chatting in an empty street of a village, with cars parked behind them Apart from the regional and municipal representatives, we met several bus drivers. They shared with us their views on the fare-free on-demand system, in particular whether it is used a lot, and what kind of passengers tend to travel on board. The contact with drivers was generally very good, even though the online booking system did not always work. Several times our bus did not arrive: the driver had been at the stop earlier, or diverted from the route to pick up a passenger at their home, pointing out that despite having formal routes and schedules, drivers and passengers make informal arrangements. Some drivers seemed ill-informed about the fare-free aspect of the system and did not inform passengers that they could travel for free. This seemed problematic as for many passengers the bus driver is the main source of information about the local public transport system.

We also talked to passengers. All of them were elderly people, headed to the market, local shop, or to the doctor’s. They could not use a car, or could not be driven by someone else on that particular day. Most of the time we met them on the bus, and found that interaction was quite easy.

Picture of a bus timetable behind a transparent plastic, with some bird dejections on it. The timetable is not completely readable because of light reflections, but it's possible to see that there are two different times on Fridays and Mondays.

 

Some of our first thoughts

Village street with some street decorations.Our first reflection is that the bono rural system seems quite important to the elderly inhabitants of small localities, as it provides them an opportunity to access basic services. Although the on-demand system had already existed for over a decade, adding the fare-free dimension appears to be a much welcome feature to public transport, at least for those who know about the possibility of taking the buses for free. However, it seems that opening up school buses to other passengers, and thereby including them in the on-demand system, has had a much bigger impact. Buses that connect the villages on every school day to pick up pupils often have free seats that can offered to other passengers that need a ride. This increases travel options, as many villages are now connected with a daily bus, on top of a twice-a-week on-demand service.

White and red bus stop sign reading, on top 'Transporte a la demanda' and below it, pivoted to 90 degrees, the name of the locality: 'Fuentidueña'.On the last day of our field trip we stopped in nearly ten villages, engaging with inhabitants in the streets and the local café, where we often ran into the local mayor. Most of the people we spoke to knew about the system, but did not use it or need it – although they could point to someone who did.

This was an exploratory fieldwork. We will go back to Castile and León in future to collect more data, relying again on interviews and observations. Once we were back home we were pleased to learn that the local press had reported about our visit: a welcome publicity both for our research work and for fare-free initiatives in Spain.

Press reports can be found on the websites of Segovia Directo, El Adelantado and Cadena SER.

Picture of a hilly landscape with a village taken through a window in a stone wall.