“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.” – Dunkirk Mayor, Patrice Vergriete
Since September of 2018 Dunkirk has been running a project that makes it the biggest European city to offer entirely free public transport to residents and visitors alike. It had already been offering a free bus service on weekends and national holidays but since usage increased 29 percent on Saturdays and a whopping 78 percent on Sundays, according to Fleet Europe, now it’s a daily thing.
“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, passanger
With a metropolitan population of 200,000, this city is the largest city in Europe to offer free public transport. There are no trams, trolleybuses or local commuter trains here, only the hop-on-hop-off buses. They are accessible and free – requiring no tickets, passes or cards – for all passengers, even visitors.
The Guardian narrates the scene of today’s public transportation in the city:
“On a city bus making its way around the historic port city, passengers smile at the driver and say “Bonjour” as they board. Two women, perfect strangers until now, are chatting across the aisle about nothing in particular. One admits she sometimes takes the bus “just for the fun of it”. A young man wearing headphones is charging his mobile in a socket just above the “request stop” button. On another bus, Claude Pointart, 65, who is retired, says free buses mean her pension goes further. She happily tells how she’s saving money and the busses come every 10 minutes so she doesn’t have to wait long. But there’s a lot more people taking the bus so you have to avoid the rush hour if you want to sit. Still, she think it’s a good thing anyway.”
What the mayor has to say about this:
“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.”
They are even making the buses look nicer and including special features within them. The new buses are painted in dazzling colours – pink, orange, green, yellow and blue, with upholstery to match. They all have WiFi. Already in operation is a “Sport-Bus” with an interactive game, quiz screen and a selfie camera. Furthermore, the urban authorities have plans for debates, music and possibly even the occasional celebrity on board.
“I never used the bus before,” she 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.” – Marie, passenger
For Dunkirk, free public transport for anybody was a key promise of Patrice Vergriete’s 2014 electoral campaign. He envisioned a sustainable city that provides services for all its population. Upon election, he held true to his promise. The project has been an overwhelming success, with a 50% increase in passenger numbers on some routes, and up to 85% on others.
“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.” – Vergriete
Dunkirk was inspired to carry out this scheme after knowing about what they were doing at Tallinn in Estonia back in 2013. Tallinn was the first European capital to offer a fare-free service on buses, trams and trolleybuses, but only to residents who are registered with the municipality. For €2, a registered resident would receive a “green card”, after which all journeys are free.
And these are not the only cities either. Free urban transport is a spreading trend explains researcher Wojciech Keblowski, who is an expert on urban research at Brussels Free University. He says that in 2017 there were 99 fare-free public transport networks around the world: 57 in Europe, 27 in North America, 11 in South America, 3 in China and 1 in Australia. All the schemes vary but many of these locations are smaller than Dunkirk and offer free transit limited to certain times, routes and people.
Germany is another example. The country announced it was planning to trial free public transport in five cities – including the former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim. In the end they just slashed public transport fares to persuade people to ditch cars.
The largest example of free public transportation in the world is in Changning, in China’s Hunan province. Here free transit has been in operation since 2008. The day their program was introduced passenger numbers reportedly jumped by 60%.
“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.” – Vergriete
Vergriete admits free public transport may not work everywhere, but nevertheless, as well as being good for the environment, it is a social measure, a gesture of “solidarity” and promotes a more egalitarian redistribution of wealth than tax cuts.
“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.” – Vergriete