"Free public transport will make the situation worse by degrading the ability to finance more alternatives to the car"

Lhe recent experience of the single ticket at 9 euros in Germany for TER and urban public transport questions French decision-makers who are looking for solutions to fight against global warming. But this German initiative had a very low impact on road traffic and is very expensive: 1,400 euros per ton of CO2 avoided, nearly 30 times the amount of the carbon tax. Germany also runs twice as many TER trains as in France and German users pay twice as much for their urban public transport: the situations therefore have nothing to do.

Should we go as far as free transport, an idea that is increasingly attractive in France with a simple equation: free transport = fewer cars? From simplicity to simplism, there is often little. In France, it is the lack of alternatives in public transport from the peri-urban area and in the inner suburbs which explains why hundreds of thousands of cars clog the agglomerations at rush hour. This is also the reason for the Grand Paris Express project.

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In the provinces, the TER offer is three times lower than the demand. It is a lack of alternative supply to the car that we have to fill and not a problem of demand. Free public transport makes a diagnostic error and will only worsen the situation, by degrading the ability to finance more alternatives to the car, with a loss of 5 billion euros annually if we generalize it, without gain on car use.

Free, bad solution, but good question

Opinion polls show, moreover, that the French are asking for more public transport and not free transport. If free is typical of the real false solution, it nevertheless raises good questions about the pricing of public transport in France. Public transport costs users three times less on average than the car.

However, if we distinguish subscriptions from ticket prices (so-called “occasional” travellers), the price paid per kilometer by occasional passengers is slightly higher than that of the car. It will be retorted that beyond the monetary cost alone, what counts is the travel time. By adding to the monetary cost the travel time multiplied by the value of the time (which depends on the income and the reasons for travel), we obtain an overall cost of transport.

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The travel time accounts for 90% of this overall cost for the subscriber, but 60% for the non-subscriber, or even 50% for lower incomes: if the tariff does not count for the subscriber, it is much less true for the occasional traveler. Overall cost calculations show that the traveler who does not subscribe to public transport always loses out to the car, whether in urban areas or from suburbs.

Adapt pricing to usage

This means that, for those who do not travel every day – part-timers, teleworkers, multi-employers, etc. – the subscriber rates are not attractive and the ticket rates too expensive. This encourages low incomes not eligible for social tariffs to use the car… or to defraud public transport. As occasional travelers make up half of travellers, but only make 25% of trips for 50% of revenue, there is a significant source of transfer from the car to public transport.

The subscription induces, moreover, an overconsumption of public transport over short distances: whether you take transport once or a hundred times, it is the same price. While public transport in large cities is saturated at peak times, on some metro or tram lines 25% of journeys are from one to two stations, with journey times close to walking.

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Studies have shown that this saturation, given the discomfort generated, results in a shift from public transport to the car for travelers having to make long journeys. It would thus be necessary to adapt the pricing so that occasional users are less occasional and that subscribers use public transport more wisely.

Free generates waste

To get out of these failings, usage-based pricing seems the most promising avenue and technologies now allow it. A system with a price for access to the network and a price per trip: for example, 5 euros fixed + 1 euro for travel, like what Greater Nancy is doing intelligently. Another possibility: subscription pricing for home-work journeys only (40 journeys per month for full-time, 20 for part-time) and a rate of 2 euros for other journeys.

In all cases, specific pricing for low incomes and families must be maintained. Such devices would trigger a virtuous circle: more traffic with more revenue, therefore more investment in new lines, more comfort, fewer cars. The exact opposite of the consequences of free admission in urban areas!

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The chimera of gratuitousness generates waste. The summer we have just spent should prove it, if need be: it is easy to imagine the consequences of free water. At the time of sobriety, it is, on the contrary, another path that must be taken. We will not succeed in the modal shift from the car to public transport, and therefore the decarbonisation of mobility, without a sharp increase in the offer on the links which are currently deprived of it and without an adaptation of the pricing of public transport. . With the immense needs that the decarbonization of mobility requires, we must strongly prioritize investment over consumption.

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