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The seductive appeal of free public transport

19.09.2018
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Many towns have already introduced free public transport in an effort to ease traffic congestion.

In around 100 cities across the globe, it’s now possible to take the tram, the metro or the bus without spending a cent or dodging the fare. Most of the cities, regardless of whether they have a population of a few thousand or a few million, don’t regret having implemented the system. From the buses of the small Portuguese city of Porto Real to the automated metro systems of Miami, Florida; Noyon, France (population: 13,000) and Chengdu, China (population: 5 million), free public transport is now a recognised urban mobility option and solution for mitigating pollution.

One example that has attracted the attention of several cities worldwide is the Estonian capital of Tallinn. Since January 2013, the town’s 435,000 inhabitants have enjoyed free public transport. More than six years later, the results for both passengers and the city are extremely positive. Oddly enough, the scheme has enabled the city to make money. By attracting new residents, Tallinn has boosted its local tax revenues. Furthermore, the city is less congested, which has led to a reduction in air pollution. Road traffic declined by 15% in one year.

Free schemes in 30 French towns

The Tallinn model is the envy of Paris. Mayor Anne Hidalgo wants Parisians to make greater use of public transport and is considering making it free to reduce car pollution. For certain residents – people over 65 and handicapped adults whose income is below a certain threshold – free transit is already a reality since 1 June. It remains to be seen, however, whether it would be economically feasible to offer free public transport to everyone, since the shortfall in passenger revenues would need to be offset by funds from somewhere else. If the project proves to be viable, roll-out could take place in 2020, according to the mayor’s office. 

Free transit programs are running successfully in around 30 French towns. Most of the communities have fewer than 20,000 inhabitants, and their public transport networks are comprised solely of bus routes with scant ridership. In the provinces, where traffic congestion is less of a problem than in the major urban areas, most people prefer to use their own means of travel.

Equitable pricing

The main obstacle to free public transport is cost. Fare revenues are a significant source of income for large cities. In Paris, ticket and travel card sales account for 33% of the transport budget. The rest is funded by local communities and private sector employers, via a special transport tax. If zero-fare public transit were extended to all holders of a Navigo transport pass, and not just Parisians, the gap would amount to €3.5 billion a year.

In light of the high cost, it’s not surprising that some cities have discontinued their programmes. Both Portland in the United States and Hasselt in Belgium have reintroduced fares. In Hasselt, the loss of ticket revenue had a negative impact of €1 million, and there was an increase in anti-social behaviour. “There’s no such thing as a free ride,” commented Claude Faucher, managing director of the Union des Transports Publics (UTP) transport operators’ organisation. He advocates equitable pricing, a fare‑setting process based on ability to pay. Several cities, including Grenoble and Strasbourg, have adopted this type of approach. “The price of a monthly pass varies between €3.40 and €50.80 depending on household income,” said Roland Ries, the mayor of Strasbourg. The mechanism has led to a €200,000 increase in ticket revenue and a 5% decrease in fare evasion.

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