Light at the end of the tunnel
Nonetheless, and while appearing counter-intuitive, adopting free travel has not proven to be a major financial hurdle for the councils that have introduced it. The various studies conclude that decisions were “well-informed” and economically rational. Economic calculations showed that some networks had ticketing investment, ticket inspection and fare collection costs that were sometimes higher than passenger revenues. These networks, which are generally small and less used than others of similar size, have thus taken advantage of the opportunity to revitalise their image and attractiveness by offering universal access to their services.
It was also found that the loss of passenger revenue is not an insurmountable barrier for a number of small networks, particularly those with a recovery rate of below 15%. The employer transport contribution and the reallocation of certain budgets are sufficient to compensate for the loss of passenger revenue. Cities with a high transport contribution due to strong economic activity in their region, such as Dunkirk, thus find it easier to transition to free transport.
When it comes to evaluating the impact of such measures on the networks concerned, a process that is essential to properly assess the measure, feedback shows that there is a strong increase in ridership, at least in the first year, as well as an increase in the number of trips on the networks concerned. The number of journeys increased particularly on Wednesdays and Saturdays and on event days, reflecting the capture of occasional passengers and probably families with children. The drop in ridership during school holidays is also less marked. Finally, the mobility of low-income groups increases, as does that of young people and the elderly.
In Montpellier, free travel led to a net increase in ridership of more than 17%, whereas the national trend over the same period was a 15% drop due to the Covid pandemic. In Dunkirk, there was an 85% increase in the number of users, with the main reason for this change in habit being the fact that it was free, which was cited in 80% of cases.
Despite certain effects on the use of networks, and an obvious and measurable social dimension, the results seem to be mixed in terms of environmental impact, which is sometimes judged to be zero, with a possible shift away from active mobility and low take-up by car users.