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Where in France can you travel on public transport for free?

Where in France can you travel on public transport for free?
Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP
An increasing number of French local authorities are offering free public transport, in a bid to cut pollution and stimulate local economies - here are some of the places experimenting with letting people travel for free.

Dunkirk

On September 1st 2018, Dunkirk became the largest European urban agglomeration to have an entirely free bus network, serving around 200,000 inhabitants.

Whether you live in Dunkirk or are just visiting, you can travel across the city for free all week long with no need for a ticket or pass.

Mayor Patrice Vergriete first promised free public transport when he was elected to the position in 2014, but “we didn’t want to introduce the measure straight away, because the bus network would not have been able to absorb the effects,” Didier Hubert of the Dunkirk transport authority told The Local.

Instead, the council focused first on improving the service, with extended routes, services every 10 minutes, and buses which trigger traffic lights to turn green. 

According to a report published in September 2019, public transport use had increased by 88 percent since 2017.

Jean-François Montagne, vice-president of the Dunkirk Urban Community in charge of ecological transition said: “If you tell your fellow citizens, ‘Take the bus, it’s good for the planet,’ it won’t work. However, if you say, ‘Take the bus, it’s free, and also it’s good for the planet,’ it works.”

Political leaders from across France, including Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, have visited the coastal city to learn from its example.

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Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on her visit to Dunkirk. Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP

While Montagne accepts that the Dunkirk model is not necessarily transferable – even before it became free, ticket sales only accounted for 10 percent of the transportation system’s funding, a much smaller proportion than in larger cities – he does believe others will follow. “I really think that in 10 years, every city will have made public transport free.

“They don’t know it yet, but I’m convinced of it.”

READ ALSO French train operator SNCF unveils cheaper fares to tempt customers back

Calais

25 miles up the coast from Dunkirk, another town has taken the plunge. Bus travel in Calais has been free since January 2020. This led to a 70 percent increase in passengers in the first months of the year, before the disruption caused by the pandemic, according to La Voix du Nord.

As in Dunkirk, the measure applies to all passengers; you do not need to show a ticket or proof of residency.

Mayor Natacha Bouchart, of the centre-right Les Républicains party, first announced the measure in November 2018, “in response to the concerns of the ‘yellow vests’ in Calais,” as reported by local newspaper Nord Littoral.

Montpellier’s beautifully decorated trams are free at the weekends for residents. Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Montpellier

Other cities have opted for a gradual approach. In September 2020, Montpellier in south east France made its bus and tram network free for residents on weekends.

The city plans to offer free transportation during the week for resident under-18s and over-65s from September 2021, before making the network entirely free for all residents in 2023.

The choice to exclude visitors from the programme was a political one, according to Julie Frêche, vice-president for transport and mobility at the Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole.

“You need to be a resident to benefit from the measure, to show that, yes, we pay taxes, but these taxes go towards financing ambitious public policies,” she told The Local.

Since the measure was introduced, 80,000 free weekend passes have already been downloaded, and weekend public transport usage has increased by 7 percent despite the effects of the pandemic.

Frêche also believes public transport can help to kickstart the post-lockdown economy.

“We did a study which says that 57 percent of those who made a journey at the weekend, did so because it was free,” she said.

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about taking the train in France

Nantes

On April 24th, the northern French town of Nantes joined Montpellier in offering free travel on weekends.

In Nantes, however, this applies not just to locals, but to visitors as well. The price of an unlimited travel pass has also fallen by 20 percent.

Nancy

In December 2020, the eastern city of Nancy also made public transport free on weekends.

No tickets are needed, meaning anybody can ride for free, residents and tourists alike. This applies to the bus and tram networks, as well as the ‘Citadines’, two lines of mini, electric shuttle buses which can be used for short journeys between different points in the centre of town.

The decision not to limit the offer to residents is an attempt to encourage people who live outside of the city to make the journey into town, according to Patrick Hatzig, vice-president in charge of transport at the Grand Nancy local authority.

“Our original intention was to make public transport attractive again, at a moment when Covid was leading to a fall in passenger numbers,” Hatzig told The Local.

“If it wasn’t for Covid, we would have done it anyway, but that only strengthened our determination. Covid is also an economic crisis, so helping families to come to the city centre and spend money, that has revitalised the economy.”

The council also has plans to develop 200 kilometres of new cycle lanes, and to create faster routes with buses which have priority at traffic lights. “We can only achieve all of that if we have fewer cars in town,” Hatzig said.

Paris

Residents of the greater Paris Île-de-France region who are under 18 are eligible for a full reimbursement of their monthly transport card. In addition, residents aged 14-18 can receive a reimbursement for the Vélib’ bicycle rental scheme.

The policy was introduced ahead of the 2020-21 school year.

During an interview with French media following the creation of the reimbursement scheme, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo hinted that public transportation in the city could become free for everyone by 2026. 

Lyon

In January, France’s third largest city – which has a Green Party mayor – made public transport free for certain residents. The scheme was designed to benefit 130,000 people in the greater Lyon area who are on low incomes or in vulnerable situations.

“The development of public transport is the most efficient method of reducing geographical and social inequalities,” Bruno Bernard, the Green president of the Grand Lyon urban area, said at the time.

The decision to target the least well-off sections of the population reflects a debate which is ongoing in a number of cities, including Nancy: whether free public transport should be universal, or whether resources are best directed towards those who would benefit the most.

One thing seems certain: we are going to see more French cities implement similar policies in the years to come. Strasbourg will add its name to the list in September, when it implements free travel for under-18s.


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