The city of Dunkirk in northern France launched a revamped bus system last year with a twist – it’s completely free. A new study shows that the programme is not only revitalising the city center but also helping the environment.
Dunkirk, which sits on the “Opal Coast” at the northernmost tip of France, is best known for the battle and evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers to Britain during the Second World War. After the war, the port city was rebuilt as an industrial hub, with oil refineries and a major steel mill.
Now the city (population 90,000) seeks to become a beacon of a greener economy, by building infrastructure such as a large-scale wind farm off the coast and transforming its city center to be more pedestrian-friendly. Key to this effort is its free bus system, inaugurated on 1 September, 2018. The network connects Dunkirk to a cluster of neighbouring towns, with five express lines running every ten minutes throughout the day, and a dozen other lines serving less dense areas. Altogether, it serves some 200,000 residents.
For many, the effect has been nothing short of liberating, says Vanessa Delevoye, editor of Urbis, a magazine of urban politics published by the local government. To get around town, you no longer need to look at the schedules, buy tickets or worry about parking, she says. You just hop on the bus.
“It’s become a synonym of freedom,” she says, attracting those who might not otherwise have used public transport. In this largely working-class city, “people of limited means say they’ve rediscovered transport” – a prerequisite to finding a job, maintaining friendships or participating in local arts and culture. But it’s not only disadvantaged or working-class people who take the bus. It is also attracting white-collar workers, students and pensioners, according to Delevoye.
Accessibility has been “one of the keys of Dunkirk’s success” with free transport, says Maxime Huré, a political scientist at the University of Perpignan and president of the think tank VIGS, which specialises in urban development and transport issues. Over the past year, Huré has led an in-depth study of Dunkirk’s free bus experiment, commissioned by the city and carried out by an independent team of social science researchers. The study will officially be released on 11 September, but some of its initial findings have already been published. They show that ridership has spiked over the last year, more than doubling on weekends and increasing by around 60 percent during the week.
More revealing than the simple increase is the way that the free buses are changing residents’ habits. In a town where a large majority of residents (about two-thirds) have typically depended on their cars to get around, half of the 2,000 passengers surveyed by researchers said they take the bus more or much more than before. Of those new users, 48 percent say they regularly use it instead of their cars. Some (approximately 5 percent of the total respondents) even said that they sold their car or decided against buying a second one because of the free buses.
“My car was getting old, it needed major repairs, so I gave it up and I told myself, the new bus network is coming, I’ll see how it goes,” one retiree, Philippe, told the VIGS researchers. “In the end, I don’t need it – I do everything by bus and on foot.”
For some young people, the reliable bus service means they may not need to start driving at all. “My cousin started taking lessons to get her driver’s license, she failed, and she dropped it because she found a job and the bus takes her straight there from her house,” said Laure, another passenger.
Despite the clear implications for reducing pollution, fighting climate change was not the main goal of Dunkirk’s free bus campaign, says Delevoye. If nothing else, though, it’s a welcome side effect.
The free buses are a step in overhauling the car-centered model that has shaped European and North American cities since the Second World War. That model has shown itself not only to be environmentally unsustainable, but “disastrous” for urban life, argues Delevoye.
Could the Dunkirk model catch on?
Styling itself as a “laboratory” of free transport, Dunkirk has attracted an “incessant” stream of visitors intrigued at whether it could work in their cities, says Delevoye. Among them was Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who took a ride on Dunkirk’s buses last October. A few months later, she announced that Paris would extend free transit passes to children under 11 and young people under the age of 20 with a handicap, taking effect this Sunday, 1 September. That’s in addition to senior citizens earning less than €2,000 a month, who already benefited from free ‘Navigo’ passes.
Such measures remain a far cry from Dunkirk’s model, whose appeal rests in part on there being no forms to fill in or criteria to meet. Expanding free public transport to the level of a major city like Paris poses a completely different set of challenges, says Huré. Before the network was revamped in Dunkirk, buses were often almost empty – a problem common to many small and medium-sized cities. Major metropolises tend to face the opposite problem: a public transport system that is saturated, especially at peak hours.
Historically, the lack of travelers on Dunkirk’s buses also meant that ticket sales contributed only a small amount – about 10 percent – of the system’s funding. The rest was publicly subsidised.
For Dunkirk’s left-wing Mayor Patrice Vergriete, who took office in 2014 after campaigning in large part on the free bus pledge, the small share of ticket revenue was less a problem than an opportunity. It meant that the city could get rid of fares without a major impact on its budget.
In short, finding the resources to make buses free came down to a “political choice”, says Delevoye. Even in Paris, which is on the high end of funding from customers at 28 percent, the transport system is paid for largely by taxation. In other words, the obstacles are less financial than political.
A “figurehead” for post-industrial urban transition
Meanwhile, several cities closer to Dunkirk’s size are testing out their own versions. Among them is Calais, less than 50 kilometers down the coast. Mayor Natacha Bouchart, of the right-wing Républicains party, presented the measure as a response to the Yellow Vest movement’s demands for greater purchasing power and better public services. It was voted for unanimously by the local government and will take effect in 2020, affecting 100,000 residents. As well as Calais, Chateauroux (population 44,000) and Niort (population 59,000) in central-western France have also made their buses free in recent years, although without necessarily improving the service.
Valenciennes, another city in France’s industrial north, is taking a step in the same direction. Starting this Sunday, residents under the age of 25 can sign up for a pass that will allow them to travel around for free, after a €20 registration fee.
For Vincent Jarousseau, a photojournalist who spent two years documenting life in neighbouring Denain for his book Les racines de la colère (The Roots of Anger), the interest of Valenciennes’s approach is mostly “symbolic”. For one thing, students, who are among the main users of public transit in the area, already benefit from steeply discounted passes. And those who wish to take advantage of the new policy face an initial bureaucratic hurdle – they can’t just step on the tram.
Still, Jarousseau says the push toward free transport could help relieve the pressure on some young residents, who risk confronting ticket controllers when they can’t pay the fare. Denain, which is part of the Valenciennois transport network, is one of the poorest cities in France, its economy decimated by the closure of an iconic steel plant in the late 1970s as well as surrounding coal mines. It was an early base of support for the Yellow Vest movement last fall and winter.
For Damien Carême, the mayor of Grande-Synthe (which neighbors Dunkirk), improving the lives of working-class residents, revitalising small cities and fighting climate change go hand in hand. Speaking in 2016, Carême (of the Green party, Europe Ecologie les Verts), said he hoped Dunkirk’s fare-free model could “make the urban area a figurehead for industrial territories undergoing environmental transition.”
So far, it’s been a “winning bet”, says Huré. He adds that, despite the different challenges they face, larger cities should not rule out going fare-free. In the interim, Dunkirk’s example is winning over skeptics. Even for supporters like Delevoye, the policy has revealed unexpected benefits. One year in, free transit is increasingly looking like an idea whose time has come.