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Free public transport: issues and positions of the key players in the debate

5 minutes of reading
The issue of free public transport was widely debated in France’s 2020 municipal elections. Its presence on the headlines of many campaign documents demonstrates the political, environmental and societal nature of the issue. Several issues arise from the implementation of such a public policy. We examine the positions of the key stakeholders in the debate.
Transports gratuité

Free transport as a driver of ecological transition?

At the heart of the debate concerning the emergence of public policies aimed at partial or total free travel is the question of the role of the car in today’s societies. Free transport is the primary tool of elected representatives and public actors, particularly in order to meet the European Union’s commitments to carbon neutrality by 2050. However, in France at present, the two most highly-polluting sectors are construction and transport. In 2019, the transport sector accounted for 31% of France’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Report into the State of the Environment in France. It is clear that a shift in mobility habits and practices towards soft mobility would contribute to this European and national objective. However, while the environmental argument is relevant, it remains highly controversial because of the way in which it links ecological transition and the promotion of public transport. After all, the large-scale application of a free public transport policy – one of the main benefits of which, its supporters claim, would be to change behaviour in favour of a reduction in the use of private cars – cannot be sufficient on its own to constitute an alternative policy to the car. The environmental issue is thus being replaced by an electoral and societal issue, as a growing proportion of the population is becoming more aware of the ecological issues and wants to see greater transparency and mobilisation from political players. The introduction of free public transport can have an impact on the use of transport routes, which also raises the issue of the transport offering itself. In the 2019 GART report on free public transport, it was shown that transport networks on which free public transport has been introduced have seen a significant increase in ridership, particularly in the first year of introduction. This raises the problem not only of the quality of the transport offering, but also of the over-use of motorised means of transport (bus, tram, metro, etc.), since the new users are sometimes former users of active modes of transport (bicycles, scooters, etc.). In Dunkirk, according to a study conducted by the Observatoire des transports gratuits, it was noted that 10% of users put a car up for sale or decided against buying a car as a result of the free bus service. The modal shift from the car towards the bus has been estimated at around 24%, and the increase in the number of passengers on the new free buses was 85% between 2018 and 2019, the first year of free travel. It is clear that this environmental argument, which underpins the implementation of free transport policies, is ultimately paradoxical. Certainly, from a purely pragmatic point of view, a clear demonstration of the political will to support ecological transition by proposing to reduce the carbon impact of people’s travel can, in the long term, lead to a change in mobility practices and habits. Nevertheless, it seems illusory to base the hope of decarbonised transport by 2050 on the concept of free transport alone, especially as, from a socio-economic point of view, the model is still widely debated.  

What’s the business model?

There are about 100 metropolitan transport systems worldwide that are completely free of charge. The most edifying example is that of the Estonian capital, Tallinn, which with a population of more than 440,000 inhabitants, acts as a benchmark, and has even been cited by the European Commission as “the capital of free transport”. However, it is important to understand that this model cannot be applied to all situations. In this case, the mayor behind the initiative, Taavi Aas – from an opposition party – did not obtain the requested subsidies to modernise a transport network that is being less and less frequently used by local residents. In the face of rising car traffic, unemployment and insecurity, he decided to make the network free only for residents who pay their taxes in the capital. This measure was financed through increased local tax revenues by including almost 22,000 inhabitants in Tallinn over 4 years. This free service applies to the city’s four tram lines, covering a total of 934 kilometres. To understand the differences in scale, if extrapolated up to the size of the Ile-de-France region this would apply to more than 12 million inhabitants and if the buses in the Paris suburbs were included, the network would add up to nearly 26,500 kilometres of lines. For example, free public transport in Dunkerque was introduced following a budgetary trade-off made by the local council, involving the postponement of a proposal for a 10,000-seat Arena sports and entertainment venue, in order to finance free public transport, which had a significant impact. On 1st September 2018, Dunkerque became the largest urban area in France and Europe to introduce free travel for all across its entire bus network. However, it is important to note that the fact that Dunkerque was able to implement free public transport in the urban area was due mainly to the fact that the revenues associated with transport sales represented 10% of the overall transport budget before the switch to free transport, compared to 30% in Paris or Lyon.  

Growing political stakes

Free transport is thus a matter of debate. In Pau, for example, local politicians would like to see this policy introduced, but they face a range of opponents. These opponents believe that the introduction of free transport in the municipality would be a mistake, despite the fact that many cities in France and Europe (Niort, Dunkirk, Luxembourg, etc.) have been able to achieve this. In the opinion of the Syndicat mixte des transports urbains, the development of such a policy in the Pau conurbation would be counterproductive, leading in the long run to the withdrawal of peripheral transport routes in order to “maintain a financial equilibrium”, making the city centre even less accessible to underprivileged groups while having no real impact on car use. Indeed, the GART’s findings on free public transport indicate that the modal shift from private cars to public transport remains very difficult to measure. The elected representatives in favour of this measure have therefore put forward a proposal of partial free travel only on weekends, which would limit the economic cost while promoting the adoption of the proposal. If the question of free transport has been – and remains – a major issue in political debates in small, medium and large cities, it is because it appears to offer a solution to the social and ecological crisis. Guaranteeing travel for the most disadvantaged, upgrading neglected city centres and changing user practices and habits away from the individual car and towards soft, shared modes of travel are all arguments aimed at legitimising the implementation of this public transport policy. Free public transport therefore involves many issues, be they environmental, socio-economic, technical, financial or political. The debate continues.