While the German court opens the way to prohibiting old diesel vehicles in the city, the federal government is seriously considering offering transport entirely free of charge. It has a double objective in mind: to fight pollution and to reduce congestion in urban traffic.
Despite the fact that Germany is on the radar of the European Court of Justice for its poor air quality in the cities, the country wants to be the first European country to attempt to offer free public transport at a large scale. There will be tests in five cities in the west of the country, including the former capital Bonn and Essen, which have nearly 600,000 inhabitants. Germany has just set up a fund of one billion euros to support cities in the development of public transport network and their fleet of electric vehicles.
Is this an isolated case? Following a referendum in 2013, Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has made public transport free of charge, in order to reduce the number of cars. The result: a positive impact on mobility but also on the demography, with a return of the population to the city centre. So much so, that the revenue loss could be offset by an increase in tax revenue related to the increase in the number of inhabitants. More recently, Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, announced that she would conduct “a study on free public transport”. In France, some thirty cities have already taken the plunge, including three of more than 50,000 inhabitants: Aubagne, Châteauroux and Dunkirk.
Is it relevant to implement free public transport? In medium-sized towns where free public transport is offered, there has been an increase in public transport use and a diversification of the profile of its users, in particular with more families. Another finding: it is outside of the peak hours that the use has increased the most, during weekends for example. Therefore, there is no saturation of the network. In Dunkirk, this “political choice” has caused an increase in the use of public transport of 30% on Saturdays, 80% on Sundays, and… a 60% reduction in antisocial behaviour. Rather convincing.
In Brussels, the momentum remains very limited. The regional government has, however, adopted emergency rules, which will enable free use of public transport in case of high air pollution. Still, many experts criticise entirely free rather than selectively free public transport (for people with low resources, for example), because of the decline in resources for the development of infrastructure. Funding remains the sinews of war: if travellers don’t pay, then taxpayers will.