Since Thursday, public transport in the southern French city of Montpellier has been free of charge. In France, there are already around 40 cities where buses and trams are free for residents. Still, with more than 500 000 inhabitants, Montpellier is the largest European metropolis offering such a free service.
“This is a measure that I hope will inspire other big cities,” said Montpellier’s socialist mayor, Michaël Delafosse. The measure is introduced to “reconcile ecology and purchasing power and respond directly to the inflation undermining households.” It’s also part of the city’s 150-million-euro push for zero-carbon mobility, which includes investment in cycle lanes and the creation of a low-emissions zone (LEZ).
Free transport pass
Mayor Delafosse’s campaign promise of free public transport, with costs estimated at over 35 million euros, is not negligible in a city whose poverty rate reaches 26% on average and exceeds 50% in the central working-class neighborhoods.
This is an extension of an already plus-minus-existing measure since free-of-charge riding is available on weekends for residents under 18 and over 65 from the Montpellier Mediterranean Metropol.
To enjoy free public transport 24/7, users must carry a free transport pass with them; however, they won’t have to validate it. Validations will remain in place for visitors to the metropolis using the public transit system.
Before free public transport was introduced, a couple with two children paid 1 472 euros in annual season tickets. Some 86 000 season tickets were sold annually in Montpellier. In 2022, ticket sales amounted to 39 million euros.
Tax as compensation
To compensate for the loss of revenue from ticket sales, the local government plans to invoke the mobility payment, a tax payable by companies with more than 11 employees that has been rising for three years. Eliminating validators and, thus, their maintenance will also save nearly two million euros.
Critics of the plan fear that the quality of service will deteriorate because of free public transport. To counter that criticism, Montpellier invested heavily in public transport: 70 new e-buses and 77 new trams were purchased for 224 million euros.
The Montpellier metropolis, with its 31 municipalities, hopes for a 20% increase in public transport users.
In 2019, before the health crisis, the number of trips in the city known for developing its tramway reached almost 84 million on the metropolitan network. However, in a recent report, the Regional Audit Office warned that with “the gradual introduction of free travel, the proposed transport offer has deteriorated” and has “led to a reduction in the frequency of transport on several lines.”
In Europe, Luxembourg has made public transport free throughout the country since 2020, as has the Estonian capital Tallinn (445 000 inhabitants) since 2013. In France, about 40 municipalities have already taken this step, including Dunkirk, Aubagne, Compiègne, Calais, etc.
In Belgium, some cities have also experimented with free public transport. However, several public transport companies offer significantly reduced fares for young people and seniors. In general, cities that introduce free public transport cite climate ambitions and social equality as their primary motivators.