French city makes its buses free, spurring new ridership and decreasing car use

Photo of a bus in Dunkirk, France, by harry_nl

A year ago, the city of Dunkirk in France made its bus system entirely free -- causing a boom in ridership, as well as a drop in car usage.

In the year since, as France 24 notes, an academic study of the system has found ...

... 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.

The free buses are also unlocking entirely new activity -- of those new riders, 33% say they're taking new trips they wouldn't have taken before at all. (I gleaned this from reading the academics' preliminary report here, via my rudimentary Canadian French and some Google Translate.)

I'm not surprised it unlocks new demand; if you make something free to jump on and off, you remove not just the sticker price (significant, obviously) but the fiddly little transactional costs (do I have the right change/money/pass on hand right now?), prompting evermore spur-of-the-moment usage. Read the rest