The small coastal city of Dunkirk in northern France is perhaps most famous, at the moment, for its portrayal in Christopher Nolan’s eponymous 2017 film, but it also deserves special attention for its decision to offer free public transit to all. In a move designed to reinforce economic fairness and establish Dunkirk as a sustainable, low-carbon community, Mayor Patrice Vergriete established the city’s inclusive transit policy, which will expand free public transit service to seven days a week starting in September 2018. The policy change, paid for with money that was originally allocated for the construction of a sports stadium, has been successful in increasing and diversifying ridership and could prove to be a powerful model for other cities looking to improve their quality of life and decrease their carbon footprint.
When Vergriete first ran for mayor in 2014, he articulated his vision of a diverse, inclusive city that welcomes young people and families, supports the mobility of the elderly, and empowers people with limited economic means, according to CityLab. “I wanted to give back purchasing power to the families,” explained Vergriete on his initial motive. After launching free weekend services, ridership soared, up 30 percent on Saturday and 80 percent on Sunday. When free public transit is fully expanding to an all-week schedule, Dunkirk will be the largest city in France, though not the first, to offer this service.
Although the public transit services in Dunkirk may be free to riders, it is not a free ride for the local government, which must fund the service. Vergriete has observed that some are skeptical of the city’s ability to deliver these services without burdening taxpayers. “They think it’s like magic,” said Vergriete. “They think it’s not possible, that you are a liar. You cannot pay the salaries of the drivers, for the buses, with free transport.” In fact, only 10 percent of the public transit’s funding in Dunkirk was paid for with fares, a model that is similarly used in cities around the world, writes CityLab. Since rider fares are already such a small slice of the pie, “mayors should think about making it free,” said Vergriete. “It’s really a choice that we are making to charge.”
In addition to support from the regional government’s general budget, the free transit service is primarily funded by a special transit tax on businesses, which was originally raised by Vergriete’s predecessor to pay for an expansion to a local sports arena. “It is a question of political priority,” said Vergriete, whose administration chose to use that money set aside for a stadium to fund inclusive public transit instead.