The French city of Dunkirk recently implemented a change rather unusual around the world. Have you ever waited in the rain on a bus? You struggle with your umbrella, then you have to dig for change or your ticket. Or, if you are in a city like Atlanta, perhaps your Breeze Card makes paying your fare an easier move. But Dunkirk found a better way:
Free Public Transportation.
Dunkirk has a history. It’s a beacon of remembrance for thousands of Allied soldiers who were evacuated to Britain during World War 2. It was reinvented later into an industrial city that produced steel and had oil refineries. Back then, oil and steel were signs of prosperity. Today, they are echoes of a time gone by that contributed to the pollution our world is struggling with today. No, not Dunkirk, but oil.
The city knows this and wants to change its image into one of a green future. City leaders are focusing on clean infrastructure projects such as large-scale wind farms and making the city car-free. One key is a free public transportation system that will connect Dunkirk to its neighboring cities and towns. Five express lines will run every 10 minutes during the day. The entire system will be serving around 200,000 residents.
Is Free Public Transportation Possible in the U.S.?
Some cities have a mixture of light rail and buses. Some have subways. Baton Rouge only has buses — we have the CATS system and many of my neighbors have complained about the service. Often times the buses do not run on time. Due to lack of funding, some services have been cut and the service has been reduced to certain areas of the city. Funding public transportation, even simply a bus service, isn’t cheap.
Let’s imagine for a moment that a city in the US wanted to follow Dunkirk’s lead. What would it take to make public transportation completely free and pedestrian-friendly? Well, actually, there are more than three dozen locations in the US with free public transportation. The free services are of different scales and funded in a variety of ways. The point is: it’s possible, and happening. If a city decides it wants to go this route to incentivize ridership, it can do so.
How Free Public Transportation Affected Dunkirk
France24 mentioned in its article that, for Mayor Vergriete, the small share of ticket revenue was more of an opportunity than an actual problem. “Dunkerque was razed during the Second World War,” she tells Lib. “It was rebuilt at the time of the triumphant car.” The city was able to get rid of fares without a major impact on its budget–but to do this required a “political choice,” as Vanessa Delevoye of Ubris phrased it. ration
For Dunkirk’s left-wing mayor, Patrice Vergriete, who took office in 2014 after campaigning in large part on the free bus pledge, the policy meant that the city could get rid of fares without a major impact on its budget while significantly improving service and access. The obstacles were less financial than political, and those obstacles were overcome.
Dunkirk didn’t just decide one day, hey, we’re switching to free buses. They planned for it. Then they conducted a study to see if it would work.
The free bus service started in September of 2018. Since then, there has been an increase in ridership, rising 57% during the week and 115% on weekends. In 2019, the figures that were available to Ubris were a 65% increase on weekdays and 125% on weekends from January through May.
From February through May, which coincided with Carnival, the figures rose even higher: a 72% increase during the week and 144% on the weekends. 48% of new bus users have indicated they use their cars less. In other words, they chose the free bus over driving their cars. Project Manager, Claire-Marine Javary of VIGS, also pointed out that, “When compared to the total number of users surveyed, 24% make bus journeys they used to make by car.”
I think this could work in more places. We need to look at the cons as obstacles to be overcome, not as obstacles that close doors. For example, the main question that was in my mind was about how the city would pay the employees if they were not collecting bus fares? Would taxes be raised? And if so, how would it impact the taxpayers? Baton Rouge has a population of just over 225,000. Our bus system isn’t the best in the world, by far, but if we — and I am writing this hypothetically here — were to adopt this, could it transform the service?
In order to serve an influx of people, we would first need more buses. This would require more drivers and planning around rush hour as well. However, if more people were taking buses, then rush hour wouldn’t be that intense.
Cities from all over the world can learn from Dunkirk’s example.