The French city of Dunkirk recently made a major decision to make all their public transit free to anyone. It’s worked really well and now people are hoping the idea spreads to other places in France. It’s noteworthy that the climate crisis wasn’t the driving factor behind the plan it was to improve the life of the citizens of Dunkirk. The residents are happier with less pollution and reliable transit while it has also improved commute times for workers.
More revealing than the simple increase is the way that the free buses are changing residents’ habits. In a town where a large majority of residents (about two-thirds) have typically depended on their cars to get around, half of the 2,000 passengers surveyed by researchers said they take the bus more or much more than before. Of those new users, 48 percent say they regularly use it instead of their cars. Some (approximately 5 percent of the total respondents) even said that they sold their car or decided against buying a second one because of the free buses.
For Damien Carême, the mayor of Grande-Synthe (which neighbors Dunkirk), improving the lives of working-class residents, revitalising small cities and fighting climate change go hand in hand. Speaking in 2016, Carême (of the Green party, Europe Ecologie les Verts), said he hoped Dunkirk’s fare-free model could “make the urban area a figurehead for industrial territories undergoing environmental transition.”
We provide access to roads for free to car drivers so why don’t we match free access to movement to people who don’t drive cars? That’s part of the rationale for Estonia providing free public transit for the entire nation – the first country to do so. Estonia is a small nation which makes this sort of initiative easier to implement than in countries with large territory. The coolest part of the Estonian free transit is that it started by the citizens of the capital of the country voted for free transit in Tallinn. That first implementation worked out so well that the idea spread from there.
Who is profiting the most from free buses, trams and trains in Tallinn? “A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.”
What inspired the Estonian government to introduce free public transport all over the country? “People in other parts of Estonia started to demand free public transport, too. In Wales, an experiment with free public transport is about to end in May, but has already been extended for another year. Taking this as an example, we would also like to remove the public transport ticketing for all rural connections in Estonia.”
Every couple of years some new-fangled technological solution pops up claiming to fix all of our transit woes. We’ve long been promised flying cars and still we need to people on the ground. Today cities are hoping that ride-sharing apps will fill in the void left from poorly funded public transit while industrialists like Elon Musk want to tunnel under our cities. Regardless of these “advanced” solutions we still need to support mass transit. Over at City Lab they’ve decided to launch a series on celebrating one of the most efficient urban people movers” the bus.
Because it turns out that when rubber-tired fleets are treated as a mighty social good, people willingly hop on. See the Minneapolis “A Line,” where buses are essentially held to the standards of rail service: They get first-go at traffic lights, accept boardings at every door, and stop every half mile, rather than every block. Look at allofthe citiesfollowing the example of Houston, which overhauled its bus route network in 2015 and saw a 15 percent Saturday ridership spike in the first year; Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and New York City are all taking their cues. And look, perhaps most of all, at San Francisco, Phoenix, and Seattle, the only major cities where bus ridership meaningfully ticked up last year. All have city-wide plans to fund and improve service. What’s been missing in most cities is this type of attention.
Germans have reputation of loving to drive so it might seem a little shocking to see the nation explore free public transit. The push for free travel comes from the need to reduce the country’s emissions – and soon. EU countries that don’t meet emissions targets in the next few years can be taken to court to answer for the inability to provide clean air for their citizens. Germany is a large country and if they figure out a way to make public transit free then it’s likely that other nations can follow.
“Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany,” the ministers added.
The proposal will be tested by “the end of this year at the latest” in five cities across western Germany, including former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim.
On top of ticketless travel, other steps proposed Tuesday include further restrictions on emissions from vehicle fleets like buses and taxis, low-emissions zones or support for car-sharing schemes.
When is a bus not a bus? When it’s a trackless train.
Busses are a great solution to traffic congestion, so much so that bus rapid transit (BRT) systems are growing the world over. The problem with getting more money into BRTs and expanding them is the baggage of the word bus. It turns out that many people have negative associations with the idea of taking the bus, however if the same vehicle is called something else then it gets support.
How projects are described and packaged can affect the way people feel about them, which is why a slick video with CGI-rendered trackless trains might be so alluring to city leaders desperate for new narratives. But if transit is going to succeed, the rail-bias cycle needs to break. And it actually can, studies have found, when buses are as good as trains. The Orange Line, a BRT that runs along a closed corridor through L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, has spacious cars, frequent service, dedicated lanes, and smooth connections to bus and rail; it’s tripled its original ridership estimates. In a 2009 report by the U.S. DOT, some Orange Line passengers said they didn’t even see it as a bus at all, but something closer to a train. Part of that is due to how the system was marketed and branded—the Orange Line was always portrayed as an extension of L.A.’s Metro rail system, rather than as a regular part of the bus network. But it’s also because this bus is objectively superior to most others.