This French City Is Largest in Europe to Offer Free Public Transportation for All

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Residents of Dunkirk have responded in a positive manner to a month-old free public transit scheme that's meant to help curb air pollution and expand accessibility across France's most northerly town. (Photo: Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images)

Between a ferocious battle and an evacuation of "miraculous" proportions, the name Dunkirk evokes the momentous role that this coastal town in the far north of France played during World War II.

These days, Dunkirk is making news for an ambitious, enviable scheme that urges residents and visitors to ditch private cars in favor of free public transit. And just one month in, the plan, the largest of its kind in Europe, appears to be a smash success.

Home to over 90,000 residents in the city proper and around 200,000 in the greater metro area, Dunkirk — located just several miles from the Belgian border in the Hauts-de-France region — doesn't boast an extensive public transportation network. There are no subway lines, trams or trolleys. A predominately industrial town with a sizable harbor and significant Flemish influence, Dunkirk isn't that big.

But there is, however, a bus system. And it's this bus system that is now wholly fare-free — no coins, paper ticket or transit card required — as part of a move that has seen ridership numbers jump by 50 percent on many lines, and as high as 85 percent on others in the course of several weeks per the Guardian.

To help make hopping on les autobus in Dunkirk more appealing and to accommodate the dramatic uptick in ridership, bus lines in this historic port city beset with "an aging, dwindling population and polluted air" have been extended and the total number of buses in the fleet has increased from 100 to 140 with many older vehicles being swapped out for cleaner, greener buses that run on natural gas.

"The increase in passengers since it went free has surprised us; now we have to keep them," Dunkirk Mayor Patrice Vergriete tells the Guardian. "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, who pledged to introduce free public transit as part of his 2014 election campaign, goes on to explain that prior to the launch of the program,65 percent of trips around town were made by car. Only 5 percent were made by bus and even fewer — a paltry 1 percent — were made by bike. All other travel was by foot.

Thanks to the "changed attitudes" of Dunkirk residents, it's safe to assume that these percentages have since shifted.

"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," admits Dunkirk resident George Contamin.

"I never used the bus before," another newly minted bus commuter named Marie explains. "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."

A sign advertising free weekend bus service in Dunkirk, France
Dunkirk initially introduced free bus service on weekends in 2015 before extending it to every day of the week in September 2018. (Photo: Francois Lo Presti/AFP/Getty Images)

The Estonian method

As mentioned, Dunkirk's bold move away from fare-dependent public transit is currently the largest of its kind in Europe. But it's certainly not the first.

As the Guardian details, Vergriete and other city leaders were inspired by a free transit initiative first launched in the Estonian capital of Tallinn in 2013, which has since proven to be a runaway success — and a lucrative one at that.

There are, however, some key differences.

For one, Tallinn is significantly larger than Dunkirk with a population of 450,000 and a network of trams and trolleys in addition to buses. And unlike Dunkirk where bus rides are free across the board, non-residents and visitors are required to pay a fare. What's more, Tallinn residents who wish to go fare-free must register with the city and fork over a negligible 2 euros for a special transit card that allows them to ride for free.

In June, it was announced that free transit, specifically local bus transport, would extend beyond Tallinn and throughout the technologically advanced Baltic nation of 1.3 million residents. Individual Estonian counties (there are 15 of them) not wanting to provide free bus service have the choice to opt out, although this means they will miss out on a hefty wad of transit-earmarked cash allocated by the government.

Tram in Tallinn, Estonia
Although visitors and others still have to fork over fare in Tallinn, Estonia, public transportation is free to registered, tax-paying residents of the city. (Photo: Raita Futo/Flickr)

Like in Tallinn, public transit in Dunkirk is heavily subsidized to begin with, making the elimination of fares — again, Dunkirk went one step further in this regard — all that much easier. Per the Guardian, roughly 10 percent of the system's 47 million euro annual running cost came from fares before they were dropped altogether. Sixty percent of funds come from versement transport, a national public transport levy on companies and other entities with more than 11 employees. The remaining 30 percent of funds come from the local Dunkirk transit authority.

To make up for the 10 percent shortfall now that fares are out of the equation, the company transport tax was adjusted accordingly. Ordinary Dunkirk taxpayers will not shoulder any of the costs.

In 2017, Niort, a smaller city in western France, saw bus ridership jump by 130 percent on certain routes after it did away with fares. Like Dunkirk, 10 percent of the city's annual operating costs previously came from fares.

"Before, when they paid, it was a service and they were customers. They may have been only contributing 10 percent of the cost of running the service but they thought it was theirs," says Vergriete, noting an increase in civic bonhomie since bus fares disappeared. "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."

Free Metro rides in polluted Paris
Having halted public transit fares during air pollution emergencies, city leaders in Paris now want to eliminate them all together. (Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images)

Paris flirts with bidding adieu to public transit fares

Some 200 miles away from Dunkirk in Paris, fares for public transit, the Métro included, have also been lifted ... but only during periods of peak air pollution.

This includes the winter of 2016 when system-wide fares were banished for several consecutive days as the City of Lights was shrouded under an oppressive blanket of smog. Like in Dunkirk but on a much more urgent and expansive scale, the idea was that by making public transit free, a substantial number of Parisians would be inclined to leave their cars at home, helping to limit additional emissions from private vehicles and, in turn, ending the days-long bout of dangerously poor air quality. This fare-eliminating trial balloon of sorts was the right, safe thing to do but also an expensive one, costing the city northwards of 16 million euros.

Under mayor-cum-tireless environmental warrior Anne Hidalgo, Paris is mulling over the idea of permanently scrapping public transit fares although implementing such a dramatic move wouldn't come quite as easily as in Dunkirk where income from fares plays a more modest role in keeping things up and running. In Paris, passenger fares account for about half of the annual cost to keep 14 Métro lines, 58 buses lines, regional commuter trains and a growing tramway system in operation.

"To improve public transport we should not only make it more extensive, more regular and more comfortable, we must also rethink the fares system," said Hidalgo in a statement earlier this year.

Opponents of Hidalgo's fare-free inclinations worry that striking fares completely would present an unfair burden on taxpayers, who would likely end up footing the bill in a city that already has high rates of public transit use. Per a 2015 study by EU statistics agency Eurostat, over 60 percent of Parisians use buses and trains to commute versus the 25 percent who drive a car to work regularly.

Critics believe that these statistics would fluctuate only slightly if fares were eliminated.

"Who will the new public transport users be? All studies have shown they will be cyclists, then pedestrians and very few motorists," transport economist Frédéric Héran argues to the Guardian. "This clearly shows it's an anti-cycling, anti-pedestrian measure and not very discouraging to cars."

Another critic, Claude Faucher of Union des Transports Publics et Ferroviaires (UTP) believes scraping fares for Parisians demonstrating economic hardship could "perhaps be justified" but that far-free public transit for everyone would "deprive [public] transport of resources that are useful and necessary for development."

Dunkirk Mayor Patrice Vergriete in 2014
In 2014, mayoral candidate Patrice Vergriete vowed to make public transport in Dunkirk free to all. Four years on, he's delivered. (Photo: Philippe Hugen/AFP/Getty Images)

'You can't put a price on mobility and social justice'

Mayor Hidalgo, who, among other things, has transformed a congested highway along the Seine into a riverside park and improved the city's bike infrastructure by leaps and bounds to help curb air pollution, points to Tallinn as one city that's successfully made permanent public transit fare-elimination work.

The Parisian mayor and other proponents of free — or mostly free — public transit are also looking to a slew of air pollution-plagued German cities for guidance and inspiration. In early 2018, it was announced that five major cities in the western part of the country — Bonn, Essen, Herrenberg, Mannheim and Reutlingen — had been selected to launch trial programs that would test the feasibility of permanently axing public transit fares.

"It's up to the municipalities themselves to decide if they want to try it," environment ministry spokesman Stephan Gabriel Haufe explained at a press conference announcing the pilot scheme. "The municipalities would have to come to us with the proposal of free local public transport, and then we would see if it's feasible."

As the Guardian notes, the divisive plan was later reworked so that public fares in these cities would be generously reduced instead of eliminated entirely. To help compensate for the potential losses triggered by lowered fares, the German government is pitching in 128 million euros.

Meanwhile back on the northernmost coast of France, things really couldn't be more hunky-dory. Dunkirk's once overlooked and under-utilized bus system is now all the rage — and all because fares were lifted.

"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 tells the Guardian.

His advice for other cities considering doing the same?

"Put the advantages and disadvantages on the table and consider it realistically," he says. "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."