The Right to Public Space and Dunkirk as a Laboratory for Free Transit

by Gregory Smithsimonon 10 March 2015 Tags: public space | suburbs | human rights | right to the city | United States

Comment  Many of the commonly defended human rights (freedom of expression, of assembly, of information, of movement, etc.) depend on the availability of physical public space. Their absence, especially in the suburbs, routinely hinders the rights of citizens. For this reason, Gregory Smithsimon argues for a formal right to public space.

The many uses of public space: tourists pause next to a 1982 statue by Seward Johnson in New York City’s Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street © G. Smithsimon

At the center of virtually every major protest movement in recent years has been a central public space. Anti-Mubarak protesters filled Tahrir Square in Egypt, just as anti-government protesters in Ukraine filled Independence Square. Indignados took over Madrid’s Puerta del Sol a few months before Occupy Wall Street took over Liberty Plaza in New York City, and each protest spread to new plazas in new cities. The importance of public spaces for social movements is not a recent phenomenon, as the 1989 protests associated with Beijing’s Tiananmen Square or the Argentinean group Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo both demonstrate.

While each of these movements grew to significance in a central, symbolic public space, increasing numbers of people around the world have little access to such public spaces, using privately owned spaces for activities that once took place in public. From Calgary to Johannesburg, people shop in privately owned malls rather than market streets. From the suburbs of Shanghai to Las Vegas, they live in suburban developments that lack sidewalks or parks. And from New York to Santiago, they gather and eat lunch in plazas that are privately owned annexes to office buildings rather than public squares. Particularly in suburbs, there may be no public space. Elsewhere on the neoliberal landscape, spaces that filled the traditional functions of the public square have been privatized, encouraging owners and the state to claim that people no longer have free-speech rights there.

Public space is fundamental to the exercise of US civil liberties and internationally recognized human rights

The rights in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights depend, practically, on having public spaces in which to exercise them, including the right to work (whether traveling to work, setting up shop on the sidewalk, lining up as a day laborer, or advertising one’s services), the right to form and join trade unions, freedom of conscience and religion (whether men praying on the sidewalk outside an overflowing mosque, the faithful street preaching and evangelizing, or observers publicly displaying their affiliation through what they wear) and the right to rest and leisure.

Today, international organizations explicitly recognize this dependence of basic rights on public space. Thus UN Women (United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women) advocates improving women’s safety by “creating safe public spaces.” UNESCO promotes the social integration of migrants with “inclusion through access to public space.” The UN Human Settlements Programme drafted a resolution on “sustainable urban development through access to quality urban public spaces.” In each case, these UN entities see public space as necessary for achieving core aspects of their human-rights development agenda.

Other efforts go farther towards public space as a right in itself, and not just a means to other rights. In the World Charter on the Right to the City, UNESCO and UN Habitat lay out the right to the city, which to a significant degree coincides with the right to public space. Article 1 includes the right to organize, gather, and manifest one’s opinion, as well as the right to establish and affiliate unions, the right to information, political participation, and peaceful coexistence. Article 1 also includes respect for minorities.

The Threat to Public Space: Rights Against Privatization

Because some of our most fundamental rights are necessarily embedded in public space, when governments seek to curtail our rights in public space there is often quick, strong, popular opposition. Thus people around the world denounced the Ukrainian government’s efforts to curtail protest in January 2014. Government efforts to exert greater control over behavior in public space in the UK around the same time were met with international opposition. Russian efforts to censor speech and expression (either by rock bands or gays and lesbians) were criticized around the world. But when private entities exert similar control by privatizing public space, the response is far less dependable. In part, the privatization of public space benefits from a semantic sleight of hand: if the functions of a public square are subsumed in a privately owned space, then mustn’t the space no longer be public, and the activity no longer protected? This is a mistake that observers and jurists have made many times. For instance, in Pruneyard v. Robins (1980), a landmark US Supreme Court case, the justices ruled that the US Constitution does not give people the right to hand out anti-war literature in a mall because they could still do so on the publicly owned “Main Street.”

The problem is that, in many places, no true publicly owned alternative exists. In most of the United States the commercial Main Street is long gone. The local privately owned mall has taken on the commercial and social roles of Main Street, and many people can go through their day, driving from place to place, without ever spending time in space that meets the Supreme Court’s standard of a “public forum.” Free-speech rights must be recognized even in privately owned public spaces if they are not to perish.

If governments and private companies have denied disenfranchised people the right to occupy space, public space is also susceptible to fears and panics, so that the middle class sometimes eliminates their own public spaces to protect themselves from the disenfranchised. Suburbs without public spaces, or global elites who live in guarded, walled, privatized privilege surrender their public spaces to exclude anyone less fortunate.

Implications of a Right to Public Space

While the right to public space has not been formally recognized, it can already be identified as a “penumbra,” an implied right, such as the right to privacy, that is not specifically articulated, but implicit and necessary in the exercise of other rights. Just as the Supreme Court found that other amendments demonstrate a right to privacy, existing rights create a penumbra that provides the right to public space. Thus US courts have recognized that when there is no public space in which to practice basic rights, private space must be made available. When agricultural workers live on the same property on which they work, union organizers have the right to come on to privately owned farms to discuss unionization, because otherwise the workers and the organizers would have no meaningful right to free association (Greenhouse 1992). But in our suburbanized, auto-centric nation of privately owned shopping malls, citizens do not enjoy free-speech rights in places like malls, even if there is no available publicly owned space to gather in.

In an era in which privatizing government functions has been popular—in which, for instance, governments have sold or leased ownership or control of public utilities, public services, public stadiums, even public park management to private companies and private nonprofit entities, often “private” space is merely public space a government has sold to the highest bidder. In such cases, the public’s rights should not disappear simply because a government prefers for a space to be managed by a private company rather than civil servants. In other situations, financially strapped governments have found ways to create public goods with incentives to private actors. Thus most US cities, and many outside the US, have “bonus plaza” programs, in which private developers are allowed to build larger, taller, more profitable buildings in exchange for providing public-space plazas at street level (Whyte 1988). In New York, that deal requires owners to keep the plazas open for everyone to use—although most of those plazas were empty or woefully underused until Occupy Wall Street discovered the possibilities of such bonus plazas, and inspired a flurry of Occupy events that made use of privately owned public spaces. (Intriguingly, since the spaces had rarely been used, there were few rules governing them, a situation that ended up working in favor of the occupiers (Smithsimon 2012).) Private owners often receive considerable financial benefits in exchange for providing a publicly accessible space; the quid pro quo nature of the exchange between the public and the private owner justifies the public’s expectation that the space should truly be public.

This is why, beyond protecting speech in malls and quasi-public plazas, we should protect public space itself. Zoning regulations should reasonably require that every community have meaningful public space—a space central enough so that people actually gather, engage in commerce, work, travel, socialize, and speak out. A government that claims to guarantee rights to speech, expression, assembly, and association but provides no space in which to do so makes a hollow promise to its citizens.

Since access to privately owned public spaces (like malls) must be provided if a community has no public space, private property owners ought not to oppose the construction of parks, public squares, and publicly owned Main Streets. These public spaces would free them of the obligation to allow free speech and assembly activities on their property.

A Positive Right to Public Space

The right to public space is a type that is unknown in the US, a positive right. The US Bill of Rights is limited to negative rights, restrictions on government actions: government cannot censor, establish religion, search without a warrant, invade privacy, imprison without charge. But there are no affirmative rights—things that the citizens have a right to and which the government must provide. However, all 16 countries that rank higher than the US in education have a right to education, but in the US that right appears only in some state constitutions. (Compare that with, say, Bolivia: “Every person has the right to receive an education at all levels.” Many countries even grant the right to a free higher education.) Dozens of countries provide a right to health care (Croatia: “Everyone shall be guaranteed the right to health care.” Even Iraq: “Every citizen has the right to health care. The state shall maintain public health and provide the means of prevention and treatment by building different types of hospitals and health institutions.” [1]). Over 150 countries already recognize some form of a right to movement; some formulations capture part of the right to the city and the right to access public space. Even when it remains implicit, the right to the city seems already undeniable given existing rights.

Before the right to public space might be adopted as the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution, it could fit naturally into international frameworks that already consider the right to the city, and could be invaluable to countries that are sprouting US-style suburbs.

Rights Beyond the State

The importance of public space and the range of ways that privatization—often promoted as a more economical or more efficient than publicly owned public spaces—limits our rights are too often overlooked. There is clearly a place for private interests in the public sphere. But private interests also infringe on people’s ability to use public space. Recognizing our right to public space can be a counterforce to privatization and allow us to protect human rights in fuller, more meaningful way.


Free public transport: from social experiment to political alternative?

by Maxime Huré & translated by Oliver Waineon 20 March 2013Tags: public space | public transportation | market | mobility | transport | urban public service | public policy | free | mass transit | transport policy | urban technical networks | urban services | Aubagne

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]



Version imprimable

Print  In a work combining storytelling and reflection, a local councillor and a philosopher analyse the policy of free public transport implemented since 2009 in Aubagne, near Marseille. A resounding success with residents, this experiment has opened the way to a stimulating debate on the feasibility of policies that offer an alternative to market-led solutions in urban areas.Reviewed : Giovannangeli, M. and Sagot-Duvauroux, J.‑L. 2012. Voyageurs sans ticket. Liberté, égalité, gratuité : une expérience sociale à Aubagne, Vauvert: Au Diable Vauvert.

Free public transport appears to be something of a taboo subject both in society at large and in the world of the social sciences. [1] And yet some 20 urban areas in France have bitten the bullet and gone down this controversial path in recent years. The scintillating work Voyageurs sans ticket. Liberté, égalité, gratuité : une expérience sociale à Aubagne (“Passengers without tickets. Liberty, equality, charge-free: a social experiment in Aubagne”) analyses one such experiment conducted in Aubagne, a medium-sized town to the east of Marseille, and shows that this apparent silence on the subject masks a certain timidity on the part of decision-makers, researchers and citizens, to a large extent linked to an inability to “think outside the box”. Its two authors – Magali Giovannangeli, a communist local councillor in Aubagne, and philosopher Jean‑Louis Sagot‑Duvauroux – offer a rigorous analysis of free public transport that ultimately becomes a work of political advocacy. In Aubagne, it would seem that free public transport has led to a greater involvement of residents in local politics, as well as a new sense of freedom, while at the same time offering a real alternative to market forces. This work combines carefully argued analysis with a clear stance on the public debate, and as such comes across as a successful collaboration between a researcher and an elected representative.

A social experiment in transforming “public space”

The analysis of the experiment is based first of all on figures, in response to the economic arguments of the many “hostile opponents” (p. 26) to such measures: the implementation of free public transport on the 11 bus routes [2] that serve the 100,000 inhabitants of the Aubagne urban area has resulted in a 142% increase in ridership across the network between 2009 and 2012, a 10% reduction in car journeys over the same period, a service satisfaction rating of 99%, a drop in public expenditure per journey from €3.93 in 2008 to €2.04 in 2011 – and all without any increase in taxes for local residents. Presented like this, free public transport appears to be an effective response to the problems of passenger transport and pollution due to exhaust fumes.

But, above all, it is the analysis of the effects on the population that should convince the reader of the merits of this measure. The removal of social barriers, the soothing of tensions, greater recognition for the work of bus drivers, and the end of ticket inspections are all changes that have transformed users’ relationship with transport. According to the authors, buses in Aubagne have – like footpaths and other places where access is free of charge – now become “public spaces” in the broadest sense of the term that have been appropriated by “new citizens of public transport” (p. 120). The hypothesis proposed, inspired by the thinking of philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1981), is that the charge-free provision of a service is a vector of freedom. In this regard, the second chapter of the book – which places this hypothesis in a historical context – is particularly enlightening: for example, schools, libraries and public spaces are all free, and each of these places provides individuals with a form of freedom.

Is social appropriation the key to the scheme’s success? This hypothesis, put forward by the authors, can be discussed in the light of recent studies concerning innovative mobility policies. For instance, social appropriation was undoubtedly a factor in the success of France’s first self-service bicycle-hire experiment, in La Rochelle in 1976 (Huré 2012). In Aubagne, think tanks were organised at the initiative of citizens or set up by the Communauté d’Agglomération du Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile (the intermunicipal council covering the 12 towns and villages in the Aubagne urban area) to promote and complement new practices among users. In addition to reclaiming public space in this way, free public transport is also seen as a means of involving citizens in the political process, by helping them to “become aware” that transport policy is one of the major political issues of the 21st century (pp. 124–126). Finally, in the authors’ view, free public transport is something that “goes against current trends and represents a clear alternative to the market-based approach” (p. 35).

Free transport as a political alternative

The alternative to the market proposed by the authors is first and foremost a political alternative. “Why does free public transport and, more generally, alternative proposals to liberalism occupy such a small space and have such poor visibility in left-wing manifestos?” (p. 208) asks communist councillor Magali Giovannangeli, who, in the course of this experiment, also begins to question her political identity. In particular, she condemns the ideological inflexibility of the traditional political parties, who prefer to regulate the price of public transport using concessionary fares rather than promote free public transport. In this introspective section of the book, both the councillor and the philosopher – who handed in his Communist Party card over 20 years ago – seem to effect an ideological shift and harness the ideas of the degrowth movement (Mouvement de la Décroissance; p. 142). Furthermore, the authors make no secret of the fact that the title of their book is borrowed from Liberté, égalité, gratuité by Paul Ariès (2011), a key intellectual figure in this movement.

These reflections allow us to question contemporary ideological shifts, at a time when current debates all seem to converge on the word “crisis”, particularly in the field of political thinking. Although not cited, Ivan Illich’s theories on conviviality (Illich 1973a) and the counterproductivity of industrialised transport systems (Illich 1973b) – the very foundations of political ecology – are brought up to date here: if one’s aim is to reduce the role of the car, it is necessary to put in place tools that incentivise rather than restrict, and which create spaces of freedom and conviviality (pp. 138–143). This book can therefore also be read as a work that advocates a transformation of the Left in France, and which promotes political alternatives rather than an alternation of political parties. [3] However, it is also clearly a means of diffusing knowledge about this experiment in France, as Aubagne wishes to play a leading role within the network of towns that have implemented free public transport, while awaiting the adoption of this measure by a European capital (Tallinn in 2013).

A true fight against market forces?

Does making public transport free of charge really weaken the influence of market forces? Although it attacks a fundamental value of capitalism – commercial exchanges – the experiment is still organised within the context of the market economy. As the authors concede, “a company that has the necessary equipment and know-how, and which provides an essential service to the population, cannot simply be replaced” (p. 69); and, indeed, Veolia is still the transport operator in Aubagne. Moreover, the public funding of free public transport is provided by an increase in the versement transport (transport contribution) [4] levied on businesses, a move which is not possible in all urban areas, in particular those that have already reached their upper taxation limits. Finally, although ticketing costs have been eliminated, investments to improve clock-face scheduling have generated a 20% increase in overall costs. During negotiations, Veolia also succeeded in imposing a passenger-counting system, recovering €0.40 per passenger as an incentive bonus.

Is it therefore possible that free public transport could, on the contrary, reinforce the market by giving a new legitimacy and a positive image to urban-services firms? This also raises serious questions about the degree to which of public institutions can organise the market (Hall and Soskice 2001), particularly in terms of the service offer proposed. Accordingly, the authors believe that free public transport is a means of opposing the integrated fare policies [5] of large urban areas. Aubagne, for instance, forms part of the Marseille urban area geographically, [6] but has to date refused to join the city’s intermunicipal council, the Marseille Provence Métropole (MPM) urban community, instead preferring to create its own intermunicipal structure (the Communauté d’Agglomération du Pays d’Aubagne et de l’Étoile, CAPAE). With this in mind, the partnership with Veolia represents an additional, non-negligible resource in Aubagne’s efforts to remain independent from Marseille; indeed, MPM does not look upon Aubagne’s experiment kindly, as it prevents fare harmonisation across the metropolitan area, unless Marseille’s network were also to be made free of charge.

In addition, the agreement between the CAPAE and its public transport providers was attacked by the prefect of the Bouches-du-Rhône département (in which Marseille and Aubagne are located) on technical grounds relating to the compensation of transport companies in the context of a public-service delegation. According to the authors, this procedure was highly political in nature, representing the culmination of a clash between the French state, represented at the time by Nicolas Sarkozy, and a left-wing municipality (chapter 5: “Aubagne vs Sarko”, pp. 81–96). Nevertheless, this resistance to integrated fares may also be seen as part of a fight to prevent the growth of private monopolies across ever larger areas. In the Paris region, the implementation of a flat-rate fare system, [7] managed by private operators, has preceded the creation of a Greater Paris authority. As a result, certain authors have talked about “back-to-front intermunicipality” (Baraud-Serfaty 2011), as the construction of the market is taking place before the construction of political institutions.

It is clear, therefore, that the choice between free public transport and integrated fare systems has very real political implications. The difference between these two competing measures concerns the way local-government areas and powers are organised, in a context of ongoing discussion and debate on the role of city regions in France. As we have seen, this means that free public transport can become an instrument of resistance wielded by medium-sized towns in the face of attempts at political and territorial domination by larger urban areas. By implementing an integrated fare system, these big cities use economic stakeholders to organise their territories and political powers. Why couldn’t Aubagne do the same with free public transport? In the field of the social sciences, “thinking alternative” means opening up new perspectives in order to understand the organisation of our contemporary societies, [8] a stimulating account of which is proffered here in Voyageurs sans ticket.


Further reading


[1] No scientific research has been conducted on this subject; we may, however, cite the study published by GART (Groupement des Autorités Responsables de Transport, the association of French transport authorities) (GART 2012) and the publication of a debate on free urban public transport in Transflash, the newsletter of CERTU (Centre d’Études sur les Réseaux, les Transports, l’Urbanisme et les Constructions Publiques – Centre for the Study of Urban Planning, Transport and Public Facilities), no. 352 (CERTU 2010). For this issue of Transflash, a number of researchers, elected representatives and professionals expressed their opinions on the matter.

[2] In 2014, the network will be complemented by a tram line. A second tram line is also planned for 2019.

[3] It should be noted that the first town to implement free public transport was Compiègne, in 1975, led by a right-wing mayor at the time.

[4] The versement transport (VT) is calculated on the basis of the payroll of companies with more than nine employees. The aim of this tax is to finance urban public transport. The rate at which it is set essentially depends on the size of the urban area and the infrastructures in question. In Aubagne, the VT has increased from 0.6% to 1.8%, in particular to fund the new tram line, which will be the first free light-rail service in the world.

[5] The term “integrated fare system” refers to different fare and ticketing practices that enable users to travel across an entire (intermunicipal) urban transport network, on all available transport modes, using single or combined travel documents that can be purchased at preferential rates.

[6] According to the French statistics office (Insee), Aubagne forms part of the unité urbaine (continuously built-up urban area) of Marseille–Aix‑en‑Provence.

[7] It was planned that, from 2013, all holders of Navigo travel cards, regardless of place of residence or type of travel card, would be able to travel anywhere in the Paris region by bus, tram, metro or suburban rail (RER and Transilien) for the same price. At present, this policy applies only at weekends, when the network is “dezoned”.

[8] This is the aim of the new “Altervilles” master’s programme that has been offered since September 2012 by Sciences Po Lyon and the Université Jean Monnet in Saint-Étienne:

[1] My thanks to the invaluable Constitute Project (, which allows searching by topic to see how constitutions around the world protect a given right.

Dunkirk as a New “Laboratory” for Free Transit

by Henri Briche & Maxime Huré & translated by Oliver Waineon 29 June 2018Tags: public transportation | mobility | transport | free | mass transit | rapid transit | bus | transport policy | fares | France | United States | Hauts-de-France | Nord–Pas-de-Calais | Northern France | Dunkerque | Dunkirk

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]



Version imprimable

Print  From September 2018, the public transport network in Dunkirk, France, will be free of charge for all users. Henri Briche and Maxime Huré’s research into the zero-fare system already in place in the city at weekends affirms the feasibility of a public policy that encourages urban development and benefits working-class populations – but is often decried as being unrealistic and costly. How was this policy forged locally, and what is the current state of the art in fare-free transit in France and elsewhere?

A free bus on Dunkirk’s public transport network © Maxime Huré/Henri Briche

Free urban transit is a growing trend. In 2016, there were no less than 107 entirely fare-free public transport networks around the world, including over 30 just in France (CGTPAG 2016; Keblowski 2016). It is also a measure that has been implemented episodically as part of efforts to combat air pollution in cities such as Paris and Grenoble. Whether applied on a continuous or occasional basis, this is a public policy that transforms the representations and uses of mass transit. And yet, despite more than 10 years of impassioned debates in France (UTP 2004; CERTU 2010; Robert 2015; Sagot-Duvauroux 2016), the question of free public transport has yet to be subjected to detailed scientific scrutiny. Here, we shall consider the case of Dunkirk in northern France, a city with a metro-area population of 200,000, and where the intermunicipal body (the Communauté Urbaine de Dunkerque, or Dunkirk Urban Community; hereafter CUD) is the passenger transport authority. By choosing to make its transit network entirely free of charge, the CUD will become the largest local authority in France to adopt such a measure.

The study that we have conducted (Briche 2017), with the support of the CUD, [1] seeks to evaluate the initial effects of free public transport in Dunkirk. [2] It also facilitates more general thinking about the new tools available to develop urban alternatives and regeneration strategies for industrial urban areas.

Dunkirk: free transport as a territorial marketing tool

Free public transport – which has been in operation at weekends and on public holidays on an experimental basis since September 2015 in the 17 municipalities that make up the CUD – is set to become the norm seven days a week from September 2018. As a keynote measure in the manifesto of current mayor and CUD president Patrice Vergriete and his municipal team during the 2014 municipal election campaign, the promise of free buses across the urban area seeks to respond to a number of challenges that affect this industrial territory. For Vergriete, the primary aim was to boost the purchasing power of residents in an area affected by a slow and painful transition towards the post-industrial economy, [3] and where over a quarter of households do not have a car. This measure was also envisaged as a key lever for increasing the residential attractiveness of an area that, on average, has been losing 1,100 residents each year since 1999 (CUD 2013). Lastly, free public transport is one tool among others as part of a wider policy to improve the image of a declining urban core in the hope of stemming the demographic haemorrhage. The CUD is also working to completely overhaul its bus network, whose configuration dates from the late 1970s. Bus routes have remained practically unchanged since 1976, and today only a third of the CUD’s population is served by high-frequency bus services (i.e. with headways of 10 minutes or less). Two thirds of households therefore do not have access to a high-performance public transport system, including a large proportion of working-class residents, for whom running a car represents a very significant percentage of their household budget. The comprehensive plan for a bus rapid transit (BRT) system [4] – the “DK’Plus de Mobilité” plan – will come to fruition in 2018, and will offer a new and entirely free public transport network to residents of greater Dunkirk. Five key lines [5] with a high level of service, and benefiting from numerous dedicated rights of way, will structure this future network. These key lines will be complemented by around a dozen minor lines [6] (Figure 1).Figure 1. Map of the future DK Bus 2018 network

[Click on map to enlarge]

Source: CUD 2015, p. 48.

The environmental argument, often raised when a public transport network is made free of charge, was brought up only more recently. It is an issue particularly close to the heart of the CUD vice-president for transport, and mayor of Grande-Synthe, Damien Carème (from Europe Écologie–Les Verts, France’s main green party). In his view, the expansion of fare-free transit in Dunkirk should “make the urban area a figurehead for industrial territories undergoing environmental transition.” [7] This means reducing the modal share of car use, which accounted for 67% of all daily journeys made in the CUD area in 2015 (CUD 2016, p. 47), and doubling the modal share for bus use, from 5% to 10% of all journeys made in the area, by 2020.

The two eras of free transit: from the 1970s the present day

The CUD is not the first local authority in France, nor indeed the world, to use free transit as a policy to combat urban decline. Since 1962 and a pioneering experiment in the city of Commerce, in the eastern Los Angeles suburbs, free transit has seduced many towns and cities around the world and is today rapidly spreading. Two key periods in history can be identified: the first is the 1970s, a decade in which the first measures in favour of fare-free access to public transit flourished, both as a means of reducing car use and as a tool for promoting what were then rapidly expanding transit networks. In the United States, following local initiatives in 1973 in Seattle, Washington, and Dayton, Florida, a federal law passed in 1974 provided $40 million in funding over two years for experimental projects in Trenton, New Jersey, and Denver, Colorado (Scheiner and Starling 1974; Studenmund and Connor 1982). [8] In Europe, fare-free public transport was not something encouraged by national governments; rather, such projects spread in response to the actions of certain towns and cities. For example, in Italy, cities as large as Rome or Bologna began to examine the issue of public transport, and make commitments to work towards making their networks free of charge (Hofmann 1971, 1972; Transportation 1972). In France, this type of measure was adopted in the medium-sized towns of Colomiers, in the inner suburbs of Toulouse, and Compiègne, 45 miles (70 km) north-east of Paris. Despite significant increases in ridership, most of these experiments were rapidly abandoned, owing to the negligible effects recorded on modal share and the increasing budgetary pressures that began to affect local finances from the 1980s onwards (Perone 2002).

After two decades where free transit disappeared from local political agendas, it made a comeback in the early 2000s when the towns of Hasselt in Belgium and Templin in Germany chose to prioritize the development of their public transport networks by making them free of charge (Storchmann 2003). Now back on the radar, fare-free transit began to enjoy a resurgence in Europe. Whether in Sweden, Poland, Romania or France, the adoption of this policy is motivated by the growing importance of environmental concerns and ambitions, and more locally by the decline in attractiveness of urban cores in favour of car-oriented suburban or periurban spaces. In France alone, for example, over 30 networks chose to abolish transit fares, primarily in the 2000s (Figure 2). These policies have mostly been initiated by medium-sized towns and cities, the best-known example probably being the Aubagne urban area, near Marseille, in 2009 (Giovannangeli and Sagot-Duvauroux 2012; Huré 2012).Figure 2. The 33 entirely free public transport networks operating or planned in France in 2016

Source: CGTPAG 2016 [9].

Figure 3. The 39 entirely free public transport networks in the United States in 2012

[Click on map to enlarge]

Source: Volinski 2012.

Tallinn, the driver of fare-free transit in 21st-century Europe

The growing number of fare-free networks in Europe has led to exchanges between municipal governments keen to obtain the best possible results from these experiments. In this context, Tallinn has become something of a reference as the “capital of free public transport” (European Commission 2013). With some 440,000 residents, Tallinn is today the largest city to have adopted fare-free public transit. Implemented in 2013 following a citywide referendum, free transit is available only to residents officially registered at addresses in the city, and who therefore pay municipal income tax. In just four years, 22,000 new registrations were recorded, [10] enabling the city to more than cover the loss of fare revenue [11] and invest in new transport facilities and infrastructure. From its privileged position as a standard-bearer for fare-free transit, Tallinn city council, in partnership with Aubagne and Hasselt, launched the creation of a European body to promote free public transport. Meetings of this organization have been held in Brussels (2012 and 2014), Grenoble (2015), Dunkirk (2015), Tallinn (2012, 2013 and 2016), Rakvere in Estonia (2015), Erkner in Germany (2014), Żory in Poland (2014), and Avesta in Sweden (2015). As a result, these meetings have led to the development of a network of cities based on the notion of fare-free transit.

A fare-free “laboratory” to counter received wisdom and devise urban alternatives

Despite the significant spread and adoption of fare-free transit measures in France, the initiative in Dunkirk is being implemented in an institutional context that is highly critical of free public transport (UTP 2004, 2011, 2016a; CERTU 2010; GART 2013; FNAUT and UTP 2014; FNAUT and GART 2015; Cour des Comptes 2015). The bodies cited in the preceding reference [12] are united in their views regarding the financial challenges created by free transit, the limited impact it has on modal share, the symbolic and physical devaluation of a public service that it allegedly causes, and its inability to respond to users’ primary concerns, namely the quality – rather than the cost – of service provided. [13] However, this theoretical hostility to free public transport should not be allowed to obscure the fact that there exist very few recent scientific studies that have sought to measure the effects of zero-fare policies.

The first components of our study into the impact of free public transport at weekends in Dunkirk tend to dismantle certain ideas broadly shared by actors in the field of urban transport. First of all, antisocial behaviour has not increased on buses in Dunkirk. There has even been a reduction in the number of acts of vandalism at weekends, despite an increase in ridership: one might have expected the larger number of passengers to lead systematically to an increase in the amount of damage caused, but the opposite was in fact true. Second, although a little more time is required to be able to evaluate the data in the long term, free public transport does not seem to pose a significant financial risk for the CUD: fare revenues only covered 12% of operating costs – or €4.5 million out of a total of €37.5 million. Compensating this loss of revenue is above all a political choice in terms of how the CUD’s public resources are used, and does not constitute a threat to local finances. [14] To put it another way, fare-free transit is made possible by transferring public funds that are raised from local taxes or ring-fenced within the local authority’s budget: it therefore results from a political desire to invest in transport. In the case of Dunkirk, fare abolition has proved technically and financially possible for this urban area of 200,000 inhabitants, undermining the theory that free transit is only suitable for networks in medium-sized towns. Finally, the attractiveness of Dunkirk’s urban core seems to have been enhanced by this initiative: many respondents reported that they took greater advantage of central Dunkirk’s retail and leisure facilities during the weekend as a result of fare-free transit. The decision to shun the car in favour of free buses made it possible, for example, to enjoy a leisurely stroll around the city without having to worry about the time constraints associated with car parking.

The need for further research into free public transit

The initial conclusions of this study highlight two main effects among residents: an increase in mobility among older and younger people, and increased sense of freedom resulting from greater autonomy when it comes to urban travel. Clearly, the data calls for more research in this field, but the results obtained to date nevertheless already lay the foundations for a real scientific debate on the contributions, benefits and limitations of fare-free transit. While extremely varied objectives are ascribed to free public transport, depending on the local sociopolitical context, the motives observed in Dunkirk highlight the role this measure can play in the regeneration of a territory undergoing industrial restructuring. The growing number of European towns and cities choosing free public transport and the increasing integration of this choice into strategies to reinvigorate declining urban cores mean that Dunkirk has an important role to play as a “laboratory”, until such time as fare-free transit is finally recognized as a subject worthy of urban research.


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[1] This research was also supported by AGUR (Agence d’Urbanisme et de Développement de la Région Flandre–Dunkerque – Flanders–Dunkirk Regional Urban Planning and Development Agency), which made its technical and political resources available to us for the purposes of the study.

[2] This study involved around 60 interviews with bus users, drivers and ticket inspectors, as well as with technicians from the CUD’s transport department, board members of the public-service delegation, and local elected officials. These interviews were complemented by a questionnaire distributed to some 400 people, and an analysis of CUD deliberations since 2010.

[3] Figures from French national statistics office INSEE, published in 2016, attest to the social and economic difficulties of the CUD area. For example, the annual median fiscal revenue in 2013 was €18,161 per consumption unit, or €1,950 less than the average for mainland France and Corsica. Furthermore, the poverty rate stood at 17.7% in 2013, compared with 14% nationally: pockets of poverty were concentrated in particular in the municipalities of Grande-Synthe (28%) and Dunkirk proper (20%). Finally, the unemployment rate for the CUD area in 2013 was 18.7% (INSEE 2016). In light of these statistics, Patrice Vergriete called upon presidential candidates, on 18 September 2016, to develop a “Marshall Plan” for France’s former industrial heartlands in La

[4] Rapid transit systems, and bus rapid transit (BRT) systems in particular, have inspired the concepts of THNS (transport à haut niveau de service – “transport with a high level of service”) and BHNS (bus à haut niveau de service – “buses with a high level of service”) in France. These terms refer to the transit infrastructure necessary for the implementation of a high-performance transport service: dedicated rights of way, high service frequencies, automatic ticket machines, priority at traffic lights, etc.

[5] In Dunkirk, these key lines are branded lignes Chrono (conveying the idea of rapid, timely bus services) and correspond to the five primary urban bus routes that will connect towns across the CUD area with a high frequency of service (headways of 10 minutes or less) and with significant sections of these routes running on dedicated rights of way (i.e. reserved bus lanes).

[6] One of the key aims of the €65 million “DK’Plus de Mobilité” project is to reconfigure the transit network in such a way that 60% of the urban area’s population – 120,000 inhabitants – will be within 300 metres (1,000 feet) of a bus route with 10-minute headways. The area’s rapid transit system was first launched in 2010, when the previous municipal council won the French environment ministry’s second call for reserved-lane public transport projects, resulting in a subsidy of €9 million for the CUD.

[7] Interview with Damien Carême, December 2016.

[8] In the United States, following these experiments, fare-free transit primarily spread to college towns (Figure 3). Thanks, to a large extent, to the exorbitant tuition fees paid by students, college towns were able to offer free public transportation services to all their residents. Amherst, Massachusetts, was a pioneer in this respect as early as 1976. Since 2002, Chapel Hill in North Carolina has been the largest university city to adopt free transit among the 60 or so cases identified (Brown et al. 2003; Volinski 2012).

[9] Colomiers, a suburb of Toulouse, was forced to cease offering free public transport in August 2016 owing to rules concerning the powers and functions of the Toulouse metropolitan authority, created in 2015, of which Colomiers is a member. Under the previous intermunicipal body (the Toulouse urban community), it was possible for municipalities to run transport networks within their boundaries; however, following the change in status in 2015, this function is now the sole preserve of the metropolitan authority. A similar fate could befall the transit network in the Aubagne urban area, which is currently in negotiations with the transport department of the Aix–Marseille–Provence metropolitan authority, which Aubagne joined in 2016.

[10] As the register of city residents is updated monthly, it can be seen that there was an unprecedented increase in the number of registrations in the first few months after the implementation of free public transport.

[11] Fare revenues generated by registered Tallinn residents totalled approximately €12 million per year, or 30% of the annual operating budget for the city’s transit system. The city council estimates that each new resident registration brings in, on average, an extra €1,750 per year in municipal income tax.

[12] The UTP (Union des Transports Publics et Ferroviaires – French Union of Public and Rail Transport) is a professional organization representing public transport and rail companies (such as Transdev, Keolis, SNCF, and the RATP Group). CERTU (Centre d’Études sur les Réseaux, les Transports, l’Urbanisme et les Constructions Publiques – French Centre for Research on Networks, Transport, Urban Planning and Public Works) was, until its abolition in 2014, a public body responsible for conducting research into transport and urban planning for the French state. FNAUT (Fédération Nationale des Associations des Usagers du Transport – French National Federation of Transport-Users’ Associations) is a consumer body, accredited by the French state since 1978, comprising 160 local associations. Lastly, GART (Groupement des Autorités Responsables des Transports – Association of [French] Passenger Transport Authorities) encompasses 250 passenger transport authorities, each composed of elected officials and representatives of local authorities.

[13] Although it is interesting to note that, during a presentation of data from its mobility observatory in 2016, the UTP reported that respondents wished to see transit become the first free public service, ahead of water, energy and refuse collection (UTP 2016b).

[14] It should also be borne in mind that the versement transport (transport contribution levied on companies and public administrations with more than 11 employees and used to fund public transit) in the CUD area is not currently set at the maximum possible rate (1.8% for provincial intermunicipal bodies) – it has been fixed at 1.55% since 2011.