A train arrives at Paris' Arts et Metiers metro Station.
Free for all? A Metro train arrives at Paris' Arts et Metiers station. Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

The city is launching a study to explore the possibility of going fully fare-free.  

You can’t fault Paris for ambition. After banning the most polluting vehicles from the city, pedestrianizing the Seine’s banks, and generally pushing the transformation of the French capital into one of the least car-centric major cities in Europe, Mayor Anne Hidalgo is preparing to go a step further—a very big step. The city is launching research into a plan to make the city’s public transit entirely free.

That could potentially mean passengers would pay no fee for the Metro, bus, or suburban rail system across a metropolitan area that’s home to over 11 million people, making the Paris region the largest free public transit zone in the world.

Of course, all this hinges on the results of the study, which will be delivered at the end of the year. Liberating all transit would cost the Paris region an extra €6 billion annually, according to one estimate. But the potential upsides are equally enormous: cleaner air, reduced healthcare costs, plummeting carbon emissions. There’s also the possibility that free-transit-for-all would make Paris so pleasant and easy to live in that it becomes irresistible to investors.

At the same time, this boldest of proposals emerges at a moment of political weakness for Hidalgo, as her administration faces growing resistance to its pro-transit policies (plus a series of in-house blunders). Some local media have even suggested that the proposal is really an exercise designed to distract from these problems—perhaps unfairly, as their development long predates the mayor’s current difficulties. So is the plan the shape of things to come, or a utopian pipe dream?

Right now, answering that question only opens the door to a string of further questions—a sort of inverse set of Russian dolls where the questions get bigger, not smaller, at each stage. For a start, the practicalities. What would be the limits of a public transit zone? Would free transit be given to everyone, or just particular age groups or income brackets? Would it run all day or be restricted to specific hours?

There’s a broader question beyond this. How would Paris find the extra €6 billion necessary to bankroll the scheme? Employers already contribute to public transit funds in Paris; their contribution could be enlarged, albeit not by enough to cover the entire bill. Indeed, at this early stage, a working assumption is that simply raising taxes alone wouldn’t be viable, so another method would be needed.

One possibility: congestion fees. The city could raise funds by charging tolls on all motor vehicles to enter Paris Proper, the 2.2 million-resident historic heart of the metro area. Congestion charges of this type aren’t new—London has had one since 2003—but one that covered the entirety of Paris Proper would be five times the size of that in the U.K. capital. And such a plan would certainly not be an easy sell, given that Paris will have to contend with pressure from municipalities in the wider metro area where many residents still depend on their cars.

(Back in 2008, a similar scheme emerged for New York City as part of that city’s Bloomberg-era efforts to cut traffic: Dreamed up by transit advocate Theodore Kheel, it would have offered free transit paid via a $16-per-day congestion fee for all cars entering Manhattan; like all efforts to institute congestion charges in New York, it went nowhere.)

There’s a more fundamental question here, too: Are free public transit zones on this kind of scale feasible or desirable? France is something of a leader on this front, with more than 30 cities that enjoy free public transit zones. As Henry Grabar reported for CityLab back in 2012, they’ve been largely successful in boosting ridership without bankrupting town coffers. But most towns that attempted the fare-free model are relatively small—the largest is the 120,000-citizen city of Niort. Germany’s caretaker government has also been toying with the idea, but its plan to trial such a scheme in five medium-sized cities, (including Bonn and Essen) has been shot down by local municipalities, leaving the 87,000-resident city of Tübingen as the only major German town seriously looking into a free bus ride scheme.

Scaling a scheme up from this level is no easy feat. There’s a reason why free transit programs are typically limited to university towns and lightly populated rural networks, where the costs and bother of collecting fares can outweigh their value. The Estonian capital of Tallinn, whose public transit has been free to all 430,000 residents since 2013, is one system that’s managed it, creating a fare-free system that still retains high levels of public support. But it relies on a local funding quirk: In Estonia, when you register as a municipality’s official resident, a part of your national taxes are transferred to that municipality. Many Tallinn residents had not bothered to register as living in the city, but when given the incentive to do so by the free public transit plan, they did so in large enough numbers to boost Tallinn’s coffers by around €20 million annually, enough to pay for the scheme.

Still, going fareless in Estonia did little to increase demand, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker reported in 2015, raising ridership by just 1.2 percent. The number of drivers on the roads did not drop. That doesn’t invalidate the idea of making transit a fully subsidized municipal service: Many argue that public transit is a fundamental need to which access should not be limited by wealth. But if the transit being offered isn’t useful and effective, simply offering a subpar service for free is unlikely to lure many drivers away from their cars. Several U.S. cities have experimented with free public transit, including Austin, Texas. One study of the Austin program, which operated in 1990, found that ticketless bus rides increased the presence of “joy-riding youth and inebriated adults” who served to drive away regular commuters.

Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where public transit was made free to residents in 2013. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

Such precedents may give Paris pause, but they don’t automatically presage failure. It’s one thing to give away free bus rides in a city that overwhelmingly favors drivers, like 1990s Austin, and quite another to offer up the wealth of transit options that contemporary Paris boasts. Parisian public transit users as a group are far from socially marginalized—the Metro, trains, and buses are used all the way up and down the social scale, because they are so often more convenient. At least some of the problems American cities faced would be unlikely to be replicated in France.

Tallinn’s example is another story. Their lack of a ridership spike is cause for concern, if Paris intends to push this through under the banner of pollution reduction. Bearing this in mind, Paris’ consideration of a citywide congestion charge for drivers isn’t just a funding mechanism. It would be an indispensable incentive that ensures that all those free buses, trains, and metros actually get used.

Would Paris really be in a position to implement such a policy right now? With the city struggling to fix its bikeshare system (which is already free, but for unhappy reasons) and seeing its pedestrianization plans getting shot down in court, that seems unlikely. But things can change fast in politics; at the very least, Paris might stoke the dreams of free-transit advocates in other cities by paying attention to the issue again.

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