The northern French city of Dunkirk introduced free bus services last year. In a recent study, it was shown to have increased ridership and decreased pollution. The network of frequent express routes to other local towns, and 12 less frequent services within Dunkirk, serves a total population of around 200,000 people, of whom 90,000 live in the city.
Over the year since the introduction of free fares, Maxime Huré, a Political Scientist at the University of Perpignan and President of the think tank VIGS, which specialises in urban development and transport issues, led an in-depth study, which was commissioned by the city and carried out by an independent team of social science researchers. Of 2,000 people surveyed, 48% said they use the bus more frequently than before instead of their car, whilst around 5% have even sold their car, or not bought a second car, because of the free buses France 24 reported. Ridership has doubled on weekends, and risen by over 60% during the week it said, citing examples such as young people no longer feeling a need to learn to drive.
Whilst the scheme has proved a success in Dunkirk, it is of note that prior to its introduction fare revenues only contributed 10% to the cost of running the city’s buses, meaning that to move to a fully-free network – which is free to all, no registration or pass is needed – was able to be done at a relatively low additional cost to the city authorities. Therefore, for Dunkirk’s left-wing Mayor Patrice Vergriete, who was elected in 2014 after a campaign which was to a large extent focused on the free bus promise, the small share of ticket revenue was transformed from a problem to an opportunity.
Nearby Calais is set to introduce a similar scheme in 2020, whilst Chateauroux (population 44,000) and Niort (population 59,000) in central-western France have also made their buses free in recent years. Valenciennes, another town in the industrial north of the country, has also recently introduced a scheme for residents under the age of 25, who can sign up for a pass which will allow them to travel for free but with a €20 registration fee.
The service is operated by Transdev, which confirmed in August that its management contract for the network of 18 routes, including two night bus services and dedicated school transport, has been extended for a further five years and four months from September 2019. The company reported that passengers have increased 80% since last year, with a ridership of 16 million journeys annually. Transdev operates a fleet of 135 vehicles and employs around 300 drivers, collectively covering some 9.3m kilometres annually.
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