European cities embrace free public transit
In September 2018, the French city of Dunkirk, with a population of just over 90,000, and a total of 257,000 in its metropolitan area, launched a free bus system for residents and visitors, since when it has succeeded in drastically reducing private car use.
An academic study on the experience shows that bus use has skyrocketed more than 60% on weekdays and more than doubled on weekends, with 48% of users saying they now leave their cars at home. Furthermore, 5% of those surveyed said they have sold their car or decided not to purchase a second vehicle. A third said that the availability of free buses means they now make trips they wouldn’t have otherwise. This increased demand is not due solely to the availability of free and convenient transportation, but also to the fact that it is frictionless: people don’t have to worry about travel cards, cash or identification.
Dunkirk joins Tallinn, in Estonia, Luxembourg and 23 smaller French cities in rolling out free transportation in what is clearly a trend in reinterpreting the idea of cities as a service, while the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, has also been thinking about the idea for some time to help tackle the French capital’s worsening congestion and pollution, and has made public transportation free for kids under 11. Vilnius and Riga are also considering following Tallinn’s strategy. Other European cities, such as Helsinki, have launched models that group all modalities of urban transport in the form of monthly flat rates managed through an app, Whim, that seems to be encouraging people to leave their cars at home, part of its incipient and positive experiences with autonomous buses, which contribute to reducing costs.
Re-evaluating urban public transportation as a kind of cost center to alleviate some of a city’s most pressing problems makes sense. With a growing body of experience, it should be easier than ever for cities to decide which approach best works for them. Could free transportation be the future for our towns and cities?