Free public transport: from social experiement to political alternative? - Book Review
Date Written: 20/03/2013
Year Published: 2013
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX20483
A book review of M. Giovannangeli and J. L. Sagot-Duvauroux's "Voyageurs sans ticket. Liberté, égalité, gratuité : une expérience sociale à Aubagne".
The analysis of the experiment is based first of all on figures, in response to the economic arguments of the many "hostile opponents" to such measures: the implementation of free public transport on the 11 bus routes that serve the 100,000 inhabitants of the Aubagne urban area has resulted in a 142% increase in ridership across the network between 2009 and 2012, a 10% reduction in car journeys over the same period, a service satisfaction rating of 99%, a drop in public expenditure per journey from 3.93 in 2008 to 2.04 in 2011 -- and all without any increase in taxes for local residents. Presented like this, free public transport appears to be an effective response to the problems of passenger transport and pollution due to exhaust fumes.
But, above all, it is the analysis of the effects on the population that should convince the reader of the merits of this measure. The removal of social barriers, the soothing of tensions, greater recognition for the work of bus drivers, and the end of ticket inspections are all changes that have transformed users' relationship with transport. According to the authors, buses in Aubagne have -- like footpaths and other places where access is free of charge -- now become "public spaces" in the broadest sense of the term that have been appropriated by "new citizens of public transport". The hypothesis proposed, inspired by the thinking of philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, is that the charge-free provision of a service is a vector of freedom. In this regard, the second chapter of the book -- which places this hypothesis in a historical context -- is particularly enlightening: for example, schools, libraries and public spaces are all free, and each of these places provides individuals with a form of freedom.
Is social appropriation the key to the scheme's success? This hypothesis, put forward by the authors, can be discussed in the light of recent studies concerning innovative mobility policies. For instance, social appropriation was undoubtedly a factor in the success of France's first self-service bicycle-hire experiment, in La Rochelle in 1976 (Huré 2012). In Aubagne, think tanks were organised at the initiative of citizens or set up by the Communauté dAgglomération du Pays d'Aubagne et de l'Étoile (the intermunicipal council covering the 12 towns and villages in the Aubagne urban area) to promote and complement new practices among users. In addition to reclaiming public space in this way, free public transport is also seen as a means of involving citizens in the political process, by helping them to "become aware" that transport policy is one of the major political issues of the 21st century (pp. 124126). Finally, in the authors view, free public transport is something that "goes against current trends and represents a clear alternative to the market-based approach".