Saving a Transit System Through Free Rides

Jean-Francois Mayet, the mayor of Châteauroux, introduced free ridership in a bid to turn around his town's failing transit system. Eleven years later, total ridership has increased 208 percent. Henry Grabar examines whether free transit is scalable.
October 31, 2012, 6am PDT | Jessica Hsu
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Châteauroux isn't the first city to offer free public transportation, but it's the first example of a large city to do so. Henry Grabar observes, "the otherwise ordinary French town has become a canary in the coal mine of transportation policy, closely watched by the dozens of other municipalities in various stages of free transit experiments." A French report [PDF] released this year found that per person ridership in Châteauroux is up from 21 to 61 trips a year; and the city turned a profit in '03, '04, '05, and '07, after eliminating bus fares in 2001.

"The motivations for making a transit system free are obvious," writes Grabar. "Increased ridership can relieve traffic, improve the environment, boost the system's efficiency, give residents more spending money, help the poor, and rejuvenate central business districts." The results of free mass transit in Châteauroux have been positive, but "[t]here were growing pains: the number of slashed or tagged seats grew from a dozen in 2001 to 118 in 2002. Drivers complained that passengers treated the bus like a personal car, expecting to be dropped off at their doorsteps."

Bruno Cordier, author of a 2007 report Totally Free Mass Transit [PDF], attributes Châteauroux's success to not only free ridership, but also the simultaneous expansion of its transit network. He cautions that "[g]ratuity alone does not make the network attractive" and argues that "the system won't work at all in big cities, where 30-40 percent of transit revenue comes from ticket sales, as opposed to a mere 14 percent in Châteauroux."

The demonetization of the transit system in Aubagne (pop 100,000) has also proven successful, but the verdict on whether the same can happen in big cities will soon be put to the test. "At the end of this year," reports Grabar, "Tallin, Estonia (pop. 406,000) will eliminate fares on its transit system for residents, making it the world's biggest city with free mass transit."

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Published on Friday, October 26, 2012 in The Atlantic Cities
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