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Can we still make the public transport free when the coffers are empty ?


Encourage people to use public transport rather than the car – making them completely free, the idea is always included in the program of qualified candidates in the second round of municipal elections, which will take place on Sunday 28 June. This is the case for example in Montpellier of the candidate Michaël Delafosse (PS-PCF-EELV) in the lead in voting intentions and who has made it his flagship measure. To Nancy, the PS candidate, Mathieu Klein, also offers free, but only for the weekend to re-energise the shopping centre-city in trouble.

Shortfall of 4 billion

But in between the first and the second round, the health crisis has dealt a severe blow to the finances of local authorities. The shortfall related to the pandemic is estimated this year to about 4 billion euros (2.6 billion for the Ile-de-France) for the public transport sector. “Les organizing authorities of transport are close to the cessation of payments, explains Yves Crozet, senior economist, transportation specialist. They are the victims of a fall in commercial income (tickets and subscriptions). A decline in tax revenues (the payment mobility, the tax paid by the companies and which is calculated on their wage bill has generated less income with partial unemployment). They have also had to bear the increase in costs related to the reorganization of the services because of the epidemic.

In this context very complicated for all transport networks, cities that have adopted free public transport, the most iconic and the largest is the metropolitan area of Dunkerque (200,000 inhabitants), to assert less to accuse the shot. “The bus usage free of charge is to rise to 60% of the attendance usual“according to the director of the network Of Kbus, Laurent Mahieu. “It comes out pretty well compared to other networks“, he says.

Paradoxically, today, the networks that are passed to the free are rather comforted in this choice to the extent that they had already decided to spend revenue users and to finance their public transport otherwise“, explains Maxime Huré, president of the scientific council of the Observatory of the cities of the free transportation, a structure that is very favorable to the free and installed in Dunkirk.

In France, some thirty cities have a bus service free of charge. Generally, these are cities where the public transport network was not very developed and where the population moves around mostly by car. These communities have been able to pass this recipe linked to ticketing, without weighing too in their finances. Dunkerque, for example, or to Niort, the revenue users accounted for about 10% of the transport budget overall before moving to the free. While on large networks, such as Paris or Lyon, the revenue related to the securities of transportation are rather of the order of 30% of the overall budget. The networks were not saturated as in the city of paris or lyon.

The walk to the free is expected to accelerate

Yves Crozet, senior economist, Transport

Free is not going to spread like wildfire“, says Yves Crozet. On the other hand, “the walk to free education is expected to accelerate“. The economist estimated that two of the arguments of the defenders of the free transport – and in particular the city councils in majority (or large minority of green) – can “run a full“in the current context. Namely : “it is necessary to make it back at all costs-customers to use mass transit”. Free can be a way to attract them. In addition, “since the commercial revenue represent almost nothing, why not go completely”.

But the debate is far from closed. The Grouping of the transport organizing authorities (Gart), which brings together local elected officials, warns that the passage to the free cities that are considering it would be an additional difficulty. “If you do free it does cost more. We also need to invest in the network. However, in a context of post Covid, it becomes very complicated“says Bernard Soulage, chairman of the scientific committee of the Gart. “The studies also show that the question of price is not a determining factor. As soon as there is a concern of health, the people are picking the car that is much more expensive than transport in common“, he adds.

In the current context where the payment mobility declining and the commercial revenue are on the decline, there’s so much to compensate that it seems to me a bit suicidal to sit on the little commercial revenue that we have“, also believes Joel Hazan, an expert in mobility at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), as cited by AFP. “What public transport need, it is extra money“he points out. “Free, as it makes a return in the public transport of people who would not have moved or who would have market“, he says, adding that it is always possible to improve the pricing of social for those who really need it.



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