Free public transport – yay or nay?

From Compiègne in 1975 to Dunkirk in 2017, free public transport remains the exception not the rule in France. Around 30 of the country’s municipalities (communes) are currently offering this perk. But just how sustainable is such an approach? What are the pros and cons? A round table at Forum Smart City Paris , on 29 November, tackled this sensitive issue head(s) on…

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Claude Faucher, delegate general of the French public transport union UTP (Union des Transports Public et Ferroviaires), was on the offensive; Patrice Vergriete, mayor of Dunkirk, on the defensive. Allan Alaküla, head of the Tallinn European Union (EU) Office, brought findings to the table and Cécile Maisonneuve, president of the urban innovation think tank La Fabrique de la Cité, broadened the picture.

The session was chaired by Dominique Pialot from La Tribune.

Making the case(s)

Considering it “not such a good idea”, UTP isn’t in favour of the 100% free model. “Public transport is a mobility service like any other so someone pays for it  either the user or tax payer  somewhere along the line,” said Mr Faucher.

“But our services must be accessible for all so we are in favour of discounted fares [tarification solidaire], whereby everyone pays according to their means,” he added. “Twenty networks in France are offering them today.”

Another reason UTP supports the pay-for approach is that it avoids setting mobility apart from other public services such as water and waste management.

“What’s free has no value,” said Mr Faucher, to which mayor Vergriete retorted by insisting those things dearest to us, like family and friends, love and good health, don’t come with a price tag.

With a city population of around 90,000, Dunkirk started testing the free model on its bus network in 2015 and plans to extend it to seven days a week in September 2018.

“Our users were already paying only 10% of the cost, i.e. 4.5 million euros/year in fares, before we took this step,” pointed out mayor Vergriete, who did agree it was a political decision and one that calls for arbitration of spending priorities.

Dunkirk is hoping to halt the decline in its bus ridership, which is less than 5% of the modal share. “We need to react and put public transport back into the minds of people,” said the mayor. “Offering discounted fares is not enough.”

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At home and away

Looking at the bigger picture, Ms Maisonneuve provided some background to the current situation. “Rome tried the free approach in 1970 and it was a disaster,” she said. “Then trials in cities in North America like Denver and Orlando resulted in an unwelcome modal shift, with pedestrians and cyclists taking the bus instead. But in some small- and medium-sized cities, with a population mix including students and tourists, results have been more positive.”

Reasons for going free include social inclusion and the desire to improve the quality of urban life. But clearly no one-model-fits-all. Trialling since 2013, Singapore’s ‘Travel early, travel free’ initiative, for example, appears to be aimed at reducing overcrowding by inciting commuters to ride outside peak travel times (to 18 selected stations).

Meanwhile in Estonia…

The city of Tallinn (upwards of 400,000 inhabitants) has been offering free public transport (buses, trams, trollybuses, and trains) in combination with pay-for car parking since 2013.

Mr Alaküla reported “modest results” in terms of mobility. “Over the past five years we have seen a slight decrease of 6% in cars in the city centre where you have to pay to park, but a slight increase around the centre,” he said. “We think the latter is due to people cruising around looking for free parking spaces.”

Other impacts observed in Tallinn:

  • the free approach provides mobility not only for people on low income or already in employment, but also for those searching for work;
  • inhabitants are going out more in the evenings and on the weekends, consuming local goods and services while avoiding drink driving;
  • more families are leaving their cars at home to get around on the buses at the weekends.

Influencing factors

Despite these arguments, Mr Faucher stood UTP’s ground, pointing out that in the French cities offering public transport for free their modal share was already very low, plus they have higher tax revenue “so can afford to do it.”

“We believe public transport participates in sustainable development by encouraging ridership through service quality and frequency, not by offering it for free,” he said. “It’s impossible for the free approach to be introduced across the whole of France.”

“Yes, it depends on the situation of the city in question,” agreed mayor Vergriete, “but we mustn’t pit quality against free.”

Here Ms Maisonneuve intervened by reminding everyone that the cost of car use is decreasing. Why? “Because lots of money is being invested in innovation,” she explained, warning that this downwards shift may at some point risk the appeal of the car “flirting” with that of public transport, currently cheaper  but for how long?

“Where are the start-ups in public transport?” she asked.

“One thing’s for sure everyone likes free public transport, just as they do free Wi-Fi,” concluded Mr Alaküla.

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