In the small, suburban city of Dunkirk, located on the northern coast of France, only 5 percent of people typically use the bus to travel. This is expected to soon change, as Mayor Patrice Vergriete is intent on making the town both sustainable and alluring to young people, families and elderly alike. How will he accomplish this? By making all of the buses free. Vergriete told CityLab: “I wanted to give back purchasing power to the families.”

In 2015, the Vergriete administration tested the idea by making the weekend service free. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Ridership increased by 30 percent on Saturday and a whopping 80 percent on Sunday. Reportedly, people “loved it” because it saved them money and eliminated the stress of parking.

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An additional benefit was that passengers diversified. Previously, only the poor, elderly and young students used the bus. Once the bus was free, professionals and families — in other words, car owners — began to ride, as well. According to Vergriete, the free option “made people stop and think.” The experiment proved that people will utilize public transportation if it is free and convenient to use.

Before long, Mayor Vergriete’s dream will be realized. Starting in September 2018, all buses in the Dunkirk region will be completely free, seven days a week. Dunkirk will be the largest city in France to offer such a service — but most definitely won’t be the last.

According to Vergriete, some people are having difficulty comprehending free transportation.

“They think it’s like magic,” he said. “They think it’s not possible, that you are a liar. You cannot pay the salaries of the drivers, for the buses, with free transport.”

But it is possible. Rider fares only ever made up about 10 percent of public transit’s operating budget — which is about €50 million per year. The rest is sourced from a special transport tax which is levied on businesses and the regional government’s operation general budget. Because other cities operate on a similar budget, Vergriete thinks “mayors should think about making it free.” He said, “It’s really a choice that we are making to charge.”

Because free transportation doesn’t equal effective transit service, Vergriete is also working with transportation authorities to increase the bus supply about 20 percent, and to pick up the speeds, frequency, and access to bus travel. Vergriete also has plans to extend bike and walking networks throughout Dunkirk. When other mayors ask how he did it, Vergriete says, “It is a question of political priority.”

Environmental benefits of public transportation

For a variety of reasons, many adults still refrain from using the bus system. However, there are numerous benefits to doing so — and they extend beyond saving money and reducing stress.

To begin with, public transportation helps conserve energy. Reportedly, a bus with as few as seven passengers is more fuel-efficient than the average single-occupant car used for commuting. Additionally, the fuel efficiency of a fully occupied bus is 6x greater than the average single-occupant vehicle. Let’s not forget, buses use 8.7 percent less energy per passenger mile than a typical car. 

Relying on public transportation also reduces air pollution. Buses emit only 20 percent as much carbon monoxide, 10 percent as many hydrocarbons, and 75 percent as many nitrogen oxides per passenger mile as a single-occupant vehicle. For these reasons (and more), it makes environmental and economic sense to commute via bus more frequently. 

Via CityLab