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Fare-free Transport: (Don’t) Spare Me the Debate

Fare-free Transport: (Don’t) Spare Me the Debate
 Victor Poirier
Former director of Publications

Could (and should) public transport become fare-free in Paris? This question, raised by Anne Hidalgo, is sparking many reactions ranging from enthusiasm to perplexity to straightforward hostility. Not only do public authorities’ decisions concerning mobility involve a major environmental challenge, but they also carry important political stakes. For or against cars in the city? How can citizens be encouraged to abandon their cars and use public transports? 

When confronted to such a passionate debate, one should focus rationally on this measure’s history, the conditions of its implementation, and its potential alternatives. 

Fare-free public transport: savings, yet not for everyone

On paper, this measure seems extremely attractive. After all, how can one not agree with its goal (reducing traffic and pollution in the city centre)? Can one really be opposed to a public policy offering fare-free transit to citizens? 

Yet the question is not that simple. When it comes to Paris, it is important to remember that if public transit is not fare-free, its cost remains much cheaper than in most other European capitals. In 2016, 28% of trains, metros, trams and buses’ operating costs in Ile-de-France were funded by their users (through the purchase of subscriptions and tickets). This means that 72% of that cost was paid by employers or by public entities: it equals 7.2 billion euros every year. Faced with such a cost, the Town Hall mentioned the potential creation of an urban toll in order to compensate the loss of benefits for public authorities. 

The question to raise is therefore the following: is this measure really the most efficient way to reach the desired outcome, i.e. a shift towards public transport and a decrease of the pollution linked to transit? 

The measure: what feedback on fare-free public transport?

Fare-free public transit is not a new concept. No consensus has yet been found on its benefits or potential harm: if Tallinn (420 000 inhabitants), in Estonia implemented this measure with success, other towns like Denver or Austin in the US tried to enforce it in the 70s and 80s, but without any success(only cyclists and pedestrians turned to public transport!). On this occasion, no impact on urban congestion was observed. In France, several middle-sized towns, such as Niort, Compiègne or Dunkerk (200 000 inhabitants) have also enacted this measure, which overall received positive feedback. Nothing, however, can allow us to affirm with certainty that this measure would work - or not - in a metropolis the size of Paris, with its 12 millions of inhabitants. The Fare-free transit measure for the capital’s seniors (according to their financial means) that will come into action in June 2018, will only affect 200 000 persons. Given that it only targets a specific segment of the population, we will not be able to draw general conclusions from  this new measure’s outcomes.

Funding: an urban toll, yes, but which one? 

The urban toll mentioned by Anne Hidalgo to fund public transport is not a novelty either. This measure was part of the key proposals presented in Institut Montaigne’s report, What role for cars in tomorrow’s world? But again, it is worth paying attention to the criteria used for the implementation of such a system.

In 2017,Institut Montaigne recommended the implementation of an incentive tool to regulate traffic and pollution in denser urban areas. It detailed the functioning of a dynamic micro-toll, inspired by the model already in place in Singapore, which allows for a modulation of prices according to several criteria (vehicle type, filling rate, real-time traffic, air quality, etc.). This ‘smart congestion charging’ system manages to avoid the problem of ‘static’ urban tolls like in London, which only takes into account the entrance and exit of vehicles in a given zone. 

Institut Montaigne advised that ‘urban-toll revenues be re-invested in public transport and road infrastructures’ - an idea Anne Hidalgo now defends. 

Verdict: what should we conclude from these announcements? 

Anne Hidalgo recent announcements can interpreted in different ways. 

  • The desire to encourage citizens to use public transport without implementing coercitive measures makes it possible to take into account citizens’ practices and their mobility habits. 
  • The will to make road users contribute to the maintenance and renovation of public transport infrastructures is laudable, even if this contribution needs to be ‘smart way.’.
  • Yet the idea of a fare-free public transit - on which the two points above depend - must be analysed objectively and not only approached through apolitical lens. 

Is it rational today to implement fare-free transit in Paris, when the capital’s transport network is one of the cheapest in Europe? Is there a risk to deteriorate further this network and to reduce the investments that could be dedicated to its renovation, when there are many alternative and cheaper measures, which could allow for such investments, and therefore ensure the quality and sustainability of our transports? The study on the impact of fare-free transit commissioned by the city of Paris should deliver its results in 2019. It will at least have the merit of starting a real debate, which is essential to rethinking mobility in the French capital. 

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