The idea of free public transport in France is far from new. It has been a reality for hundreds of thousands of people in more than 30 municipalities, like Dunkirk’s neighbour Calais and in Colombiers, a suburb of Toulouse that in 1971 became the first fare-free experiment in Europe. However, in 2018 Dunkirk became the largest such city in France, with its metropolitan population of 200,000, to drop fares on 18 bus routes in its local network.
According to a study commissioned by the city and carried out by the independent Observatory of Free Transport Cities, the policy in Dunkirk has “revitalised” the former industrial port and helped reduce carbon emissions. Researchers found that after the move, which was funded by a small increase in business tax, passengers increased by 60% during the week and doubled on weekends – with nearly 50,000 trips made per day. Of the new users, 48% said they regularly used the public transport network instead of cars.
Now there’s a “new wave” of support for the idea of free transport in France, “based on creating more sustainable, green networks that help communities most in need”, says Arnaud Passalacqua, a professor at the Paris School of Urban Planning and one of the researchers on the study. “Because of that larger cities are beginning to implement it.”
In Paris, free public transport for under-18s was introduced for the 2020 school year; Strasbourg, France’s ninth largest city, will implement the same policy this September. Since last month, the nearly one million inhabitants of the Nantes metropolitan area have been travelling for free at weekends. And France’s southern Occitanie region, home to some six million people, has introduced a policy under which 18-26-years-olds who take the train at least 30 times per month won’t have to pay, with twin aims of helping younger workers and reducing carbon emissions.
Along with the climate, considerations of public health and socio-economic equity have also been motivators for such policies. “We’re in an economic crisis – and not just because of the pandemic,” explains Alain Jund at Strasbourg City Hall. “This is a measure of solidarity and protecting spending power. But it is also a question of providing territorial equality between those in the city centre versus those in rural areas, and protecting the right to mobility – to do sport, to go to the cinema and to move around freely. We believe this is important.”
Even with Dunkirk in the picture, fare-free public transport policies have to date been relatively small-scale, making them much easier to manage than rolling out such policies in a major city like Paris. But advocates, say that now is the time to go up a gear. “We pay very little [towards public transport costs through fares] and that means fare-free transit is actually easier to implement, especially since Covid has even further reduced usage and therefore ticket sales income,” says Passalacqua. On the other hand, opponents of such policies like the vice-president of France’s national transport body (GART) point out that “while it may be free, that’s just for the user, and there will still be a price to pay” and that “The pandemic has made it even more hard to finance because of strained budgets”.
We’ve previously dived into the topic of Free Public Transport here at Drive Sweden, focusing on the experiences of cities from the smaller end of the scale such as Lawrence, Massachusetts to larger cities like Kansas, Texas as well as Tallin, the capital of Estonia. The question was, and still remains, can such a policy scale up to even larger cities like New York and Paris?
The economic effectiveness of such policies for the broader stated goals of tackling social inequality, access to employment opportunities for communities living on the edge of urban areas, and even addressing climate change are questioned by researchers and economists – who have pointed to the high cost of such a policy compared to other policies that are designed to directly address those issues.
However, cities and local municipalities do not always have access to the first-best or even second-best means of addressing some of these problems. Or, even when they do, those can be politically tricky. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Which may explain why free public transport policies can be so attractive, even if they are not the most effective means of achieving their stated goals. Cities choosing between a politically fraught and difficult fight against powerful entrenched interests to change decade-old planning rules to provide more affordable housing near urban centres, on the one hand, and abolishing fares for their public transport system, on the other hand, may just see the latter as lower hanging fruit. The risk then is that by doing the latter, they may give up on the necessity of the former.
Written by Bobby Chen
RISE Mobility & Systems (Elektromobilitet)