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French City's No-Fare Bus System Is Proving That Free Things Can Have Great Value

Free public transport in the French channel port of Dunkirk has given rise to a quiet revolution. Fare-free buses, which were instituted last month, have made residents not only happier but also more active in their communities.

Many older residents on a limited budget value the extra money that the free bus fare affords, while others use the free transportation as a way to see the city. In the historic port city, the city’s fleet of new buses, which are painted in bright colors like pink, orange, green, yellow and blue, also offers free Wi-Fi. City officials are already making plans for games, music and even celebrity guest appearance on the buses. A Sport-Bus, which features an interactive game, quiz screen and a selfie camera, is already running.

“Before, I almost never took the bus, but the fact they are now free, as well as the increase in the cost of car fuel, has made me reflect on how I get about,” Georges Contamin, 51, told The Guardian.

Other residents have decided to ditch their cars and start taking the bus to work. “I never used the bus before,” Marie says. “It was too much bother getting tickets or a pass. Now I leave the car at home and take the bus to and from work. It’s so easy.”

Dunkirk, which has a metropolitan population of 200,000, has become the largest city in Europe to provide free public transport, even for visitors. The idea came from Tallinn in Estonia, which was the first European capital to offer free buses, trams and trolleybuses, in 2013 to residents registered with the municipality. Locals pay €2 for a “green card”, which entitles them to ride the bus for free.

Free urban transport is becoming increasingly popular. Wojciech Keblowski, an expert on urban research at Brussels Free University, says that in 2017 there were 99 free public transport networks in the world: 57 in Europe, 27 in North America, 11 in South America, 3 in China and one in Australia.

In February, Germany announced it would try free public transport in five cities, including Bonn, Essen and Mannheim. In June, the system was replaced by a reduction in public transportation fees. The world’s largest free public transit system is in Changning , in China’s Hunan province, where free transportation has been available since 2008. Riders reportedly increased by 60% the day the system debuted.

The mayor of Dunkirk, Patrice Vergriete, who made free public transportation a campaign promise, says the project has been a tremendous success, with a 50% increase in riders on some routes, and up to 85% on others. Vergriete says it’s been a win-win for the city, where before 65% of travel was by car, 29% on foot, 5% by bus and 1% by bicycle.

“The subject of free public transport is full of dogma and prejudice and not much research. This dogma suggests that if something is free it has no value. We hear this all the time in France,” he says. “The increase in passengers since it went free has surprised us; now we have to keep them. We’re trying to make people look at buses differently. We have put the bus back into people’s head as a means of transport, and it has changed attitudes.

“Before, when they paid, it was a service and they were customers. They may have been only contributing 10% of the cost of running the service but they thought it was theirs. Now it’s a public service they look at it differently. They say ‘bonjour’ to the driver, they talk to each other. We are changing perceptions and transforming the city with more vivre ensemble. We are reinventing the public space,” he adds. “Before the bus was for those who had no choice: the young, the old, the poor who don’t have cars. Now it’s for everyone.”

Some have criticized the measure though. UTP, the French Transport Union, says free transport is often “associated in France with a lack of value and, by extension, a lack of respect”.

According to UTP spokesperson, Claude Faucher, “That it should be free for those passengers with financial difficulties … could be perhaps justified. However, completely fare-free for all users would, we believe, deprive [public] transport of resources that are useful and necessary for development.”

Vergriete, however, disagrees. He thinks free transportation is environmentally-friendly, socially beneficial, and a gesture of “solidarity” that promotes a fairer distribution of wealth.

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“We have been pragmatic: we looked at the advantages of free transport and weighed them against the disadvantages and decided €7m is not a lot to pay for all the benefits. If I can pass one message to other mayors, it’s to fight the dogma. Put the advantages and disadvantages on the table and consider it realistically. It may be that the financial cost is too great, but don’t underestimate the social advantages. You can’t put a price on mobility and social justice,” he says.

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