An actor walks on the set before filming a scene for the film, "Dunkirk," in Dunkirk, northern France. Michel Spingler/AP

“It is a question of political priority.”

Dunkirk is a shrinking, suburban city on the northern coast of France. It’s a car town, where public buses are a mode of last resort: They represent only five percent of trips.

But when Patrice Vergriete ran for mayor in 2014, he envisioned something different: a sustainable city that allures and serves young people, families, and the elderly alike. So he made a radical campaign promise, which he thinks helped him win: make the buses free.

“I wanted to give back purchasing power to the families,” Vergriete says in an interview at CityLab Paris.

In 2015, Vergriete’s administration launched free weekend service. It was a popular move: Saturday ridership increased by 30 percent, and Sunday ridership by some 80 percent. People loved it, telling local media that they saved money and time by avoiding the stress of parking.

What’s more, passengers diversified. Before, transit in the Dunkirk area had been solely the province of the poor, the elderly, and young students. Now professionals and families—car owners, in other words—began to ride, too. They scarcely considered transit over driving when both modes cost them money, even if bus fare was as cheap €1.40, according to Vergriete. But a totally free option “made people stop and think,” he said.

Now buses in the Dunkirk region will be fully gratis, seven days a week, starting in September 2018. Dunkirk will be the largest city in France to offer such a service (though it won’t be the first).

Some people can’t believe the metro can afford it, Vergriete says. “They think it’s like magic,” he says. “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.”

But rider fares only ever made up about 10 percent of transit’s operating budget, which is about €50 million per year, he explains. The rest come from a special transport tax levied on businesses and the regional government’s operating general budget. Transit systems all over the world operate on similar budget breakdowns, where “farebox recovery” is quite low. When riders are already paying so little, “I think mayors should think about making it free,” he said. “It’s really a choice that we are making to charge.”

Vergriete’s choice was even more explicit, he says. The tax on regional business that helps fund transportation was raised by half a percent in 2011 by Vergriete’s predecessor. His goal had been to use the tax dollars for a major expansion to a local sports arena, which would have doubled the capacity at the cost of €250 million. For a depopulated metro, this would have been the fulfillment of long-laid economic development plans.

But the project was always controversial, and Vergriete says most people in the Dunkirk area believed it unwise. And so did he. “The stadium was not useful for everyday life,” he said. For simple mobility purposes, for the environment, and for drawing residents to downtown jobs, “it’s better to have free public transportation.” So the region is using the new tax funds to pay for the bus.

Free buses don’t equal effective transit service on their own. Buses in the Dunkirk area are fairly spread out and infrequent, which is why Vergriete is also working with transportation authorities to increase bus supply by about 20 percent, and pick up speeds, frequency, and access. The mayor also has plans to extend bike and walking networks throughout the city.

At CityLab Paris, Vergriete said he often had other mayors asking how he did it. His answer is always the same, he said: “It is a question of political priority.”

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