Case Studies: The Impact of Free Public Transit

Case studies on free public transit, such as buses. Shown here are riders on a public bus.

A study from France determines the positive impact from operating free public transit. Details on free mass transit in France, Belgium, Russia and Vero Beach, Florida.

Editor’s Note: This free public transit resource was updated on February 7, 2018.

What Happened?

The French city of Châteauroux, located halfway between Paris and Bordeaux, released a report earlier this year that analyzed its 11-year-old entirely free public transit system  concluding it has been successful.

Why Free Public Transit is Important

Many cities across Europe and the United States already offer free public transit (view list of cities). Châteauroux, population 49,000, and many other cities finance the change by an increase in the transit tax or other broad-based tax.

City officials cite benefits including easing traffic congestion, reducing air pollution, increasing residents’ spending power, helping the poor and revitalizing downtowns.

However, the Châteauroux analysis noted it also can lead to increased vandalism of buses and a sense of entitlement by riders who treat as a personal taxi service. Critics also say it only works in smaller cities.

Free Public Transit Examples

France:

According to the Châteauroux analysis:

  • Since 2001, Châteauroux residents take mass transit an average of 61 times per year versus 21 times annually before the no-fare policy.
  • Ridership on Châteauroux’s mass transit system has increased 208 percent in 11 years.
  • By 2002, ridership already had increased 81 percent.
  • The average for other small French cities was 38 trips annually.
  • Forty seven percent of riders already were not paying a fare and tickets accounted for only 14 percent of expenses.
  • Châteauroux also expanded its mass transit network by 26 miles or 42 kilometers. Critics say this might better explain increased ridership.

Belgium:

Hasselt, Belgium, population 69,000, began offering free public transit on July 1, 1997. Ridership increased from 1,000 people a day to 12,600.

Russia:

Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, will offer free public transit to its 416,000 residents in 2013. Visitors still will pay. It will become the largest city in the world to offer free mass transit.

United States:

Vero Beach, Fla., population 140,000 is the largest U.S. city with free mass transit, serving 700,000 riders annually.

Further Analysis

One study of mass transit systems concluded raising fares killed ridership. Collecting fares is a major expense, according to a report by the Community Transportation Association of America.

However, Bruno Cordier, author of the 2007 report Totally Free Mass Transit, favors a “social tariff” system, which discounts on transport passes based upon income.

About the author

Barry Greenfield

Barry Greenfield is the founder of EfficientGov.com.

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