Dunkirk: a French laboratory of free public transport

Dunkirk: a French laboratory of free public transport

The benefits of well-organised and affordable public transport are numerous. By offering low-cost alternatives to travel, it allows everyone, and especially low-income groups, to be mobile. And by connecting different communities and regions it facilitates social and cultural exchange and economic activity. Moreover, it reduces traffic, thereby increasing safety and decreasing air and noise pollution. If well organised, public transport has the potential to turn cities into hubs of social and economic activity with high standards of living.

The French city of Dunkirk is well-known as a place of heavy fighting during the Second World War. After the war, like so many cities, Dunkirk developed rapidly due to heavy industry and its commercial port. However, today the city, with a population of roughly 80,000, is facing problems typical of post-industrial regions, such as high levels of unemployment and pollution and substantial emigration. In 2014, the municipality decided to support the economical and social development of the city and the surrounding area through an ambitious project entitled DK’Plus, which aimed to fundamentally transform its public transport. As part of this project, in 2018, it introduced a brand-new transport company that would offer zero-fare public transport by bus. With that, Dunkirk became the biggest city in France to offer free public transport to its citizens.

The increase in passengers was not the only surprise

At the outset, the city council decided to extensively monitor the impact of the new project, contracting a consulting company to conduct a detailed analysis. The results, which were made public, made a significant contribution to the discussion about free public transport in Dunkirk and in other places.

The results and experiences of cities that introduced this measure vary, as do the views of experts and studies on this topic. The Dunkirk experiment is, however, exceptional, as its study went beyond analysing solely the direct impact on the number of passengers using the various means of transport. It also studied the conditions under which the project was implemented, meaning its findings may serve other cities that are considering introducing a similar measure.

The analysis showed that the number of public transport users increased by 77 percent over the course of 2018, the year in which Dunkirk’s project began. Most new passengers were seen on weekends, with an increase of approximately 125 percent. A large questionnaire survey showed that 50 percent of passengers said they used buses more often, half of whom used to travel by car. Some admitted, however, that they had cycled or walked more before the free bus lines were launched. Nevertheless, former car commuters represented the largest group of new users, suggesting that the project may have motivated commuters to exchange their car for public transport. However, what may be considered the project’s greatest success is the positive feedback of both passengers and employees towards the transport company.

So, what is Dunkirk’s secret?

Free public transport was solely the icing on the cake

While it is its best-known measure, introducing zero-fare public transport was not DK’Plus’ main goal. Rather, it was just one of the measures aimed at making urban public transport, which had suffered from chronic underinvestment since the late 1980s, more attractive. For instance, the introduction of zero-fare public transport was accompanied by a significant expansion of bus lines and a substantial increase of bus service frequencies. In addition, the transport network was redesigned to allow 80 percent of the population to reach the train station, the main transport hub of the agglomeration, within 20 minutes.

The launch of the new transport company included, among other things, a modernisation of its fleet. 30 modern vehicles were purchased and the entire fleet was styled in lively colours. Free Wi-Fi became standard for all buses. A considerable increase in the number of bus lanes and prioritisation of public transport at intersections made it possible to get from A to B faster. In fact, Dunkirk’s Mayor Patrice Vergiete described cancelling bus fares as solely “the icing on the cake”, stressing that “the cake needed to be baked first”.

The bus serves as a place of social and cultural exchange

While Dunkirk’s zero-fare transport made international headlines, DK’Plus was about much more than that – the project took significant social and environmental steps as well. In addition to the cancellation of regular bus fares, free shared bikes became freely available, as well as free transport services for people with reduced mobility. The only transport service that still requires buying a ticket is a night taxi called “taxibus”, driving passengers between two selected bus stops. To raise awareness for the benefits of choosing public transport over your car, an awareness campaign explaining the benefits for the environment and one’s savings was introduced.

Moreover, the project ensured that the launch of the new transport company did not lead to any lost jobs in Dunkirk’s transport sector. All employees that became redundant were retrained for other positions – some ticket-checkers became transport assistants, others were retrained as bus drivers. As the number of transport assistants was increased, the number of incidents did not rise, a phenomenon that has been observed in other cities following the cancellation of public transport fares. Furthermore, a survey among the transport company’s employees showed that most former ticket-checkers were more satisfied with their new position.

Communication on the intended project played a key role from the beginning. Already in the preparatory phase, the residents of Dunkirk had the possibility to voice their opinions. When the new company was introduced, the municipality organised a festival for all its residents, as well as an international conference to which politicians, transport experts, scientists and journalists were invited. Thanks to this extraordinary event, a nationwide discussion on free public transport was started. It also helped the city attract the attention of foreign journalists and researchers.

The new public transport company also decided to make the ride experience more joyful. On a regular basis, it organises so-called thematic buses. For instance, passengers had the opportunity to meet with members of the local handball club, enjoy an exhibition created by the Dunkirk’s Harbour Museum, or play a funny quiz and win tickets for several cultural events in the city during their bus ride.

Free public transport is an investment like many others

When Dunkirk’s debate on whether public transport should be for free first started, the biggest concern was how to fill the financial gap caused by the cancellation of fares. To understand this debate, it should be explained that the French public transport system is financed by three sources. In addition to municipal funding and fare revenues, transport companies also receive revenues from a special transport tax which is directly levied on employers with more than eleven employees. Tax rates vary across the country based on population size and the tax rate supplements decided by each agglomeration. Even though Dunkirk’s tax rate does not differ significantly from similarly large cities, the amount collected from the special transport tax is relatively high, as many big companies are located in its agglomeration.

Within this system, Dunkirk’s fare revenues had represented only 10 percent of the total public transport budget, while the French average is 17 percent. For comparison, in Olomouc and Ostrava (5), which are similarly large cities in the Czech Republic, fare revenues represent respectively 28 and 23 percent of the budget. By cancelling fares, Dunkirk forewent a relatively small part of income. In addition, the initial investments in the new infrastructure were partly covered by European, national and regional subsidies.

Dunkirk’s city councillors presented DK’Plus as an important investment to revitalise the agglomeration, and preliminary results show that the investment was successful. The study reports that the number of passengers coming to the city center has increased, a development that small businesses in particular profit from. Moreover, public transport has become more accessible for low-income groups, especially families with children. Last but not least, because of the project, the population’s perception of public transport has significantly improved and social ties between residents have been strengthened. In the long term, it will be interesting to observe whether the changes will contribute to improving the agglomeration’s image and attractiveness.

Free public transport for all European cities?

Despite the many good results that DK’Plus brought forth, the study also pointed out that free public transport may not be a universally appropriate tool to make city mobility more efficient. It stressed that it is always necessary to take into account the region’s situation, as well as the financial possibilities of the city. Cities that are considering cancelling public transport fares should take an example in Dunkirk’s wide approach of extensive and well-organised changes, consulted both with experts and local residents. While DK’Plus and its thorough monitoring of results signifies a promising start, better understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of free public transport requires a greater number of brave cities like Dunkirk to follow.

Posted by Dominik Plihal