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French town launches controversial free bus scheme

A town in Nouvelle-Aquitaine has become the largest urban centre to offer free public bus transport to all residents.

Niort, in Deux-Sèvres, is the latest town in France to offer all bus travel free to all users.

There are around 20 towns in the country that have a similar system, but Niort is the largest to offer its free scheme seven days a week, across 45 communes and 120 000 residents.

The mayor, Jérôme Baloge, has introduced the system in a bid to encourage more people to use public transport, and also to highlight the many different ways commuters can choose to travel instead of simply using their own car.

The buses in the town sometimes have just two or three people on them, he said to French newspaper Le Monde, and he would like to see that number rise.

“It is not just about making the buses free,” he explained. “It is also about overhauling the entire network. We’re also suggesting to users that they try a larger variety of transport options from October onwards - say, a long-lease on a push bike, or car-sharing.”

Bus operator Transdev is predicting a rise of 30% in bus use by September 2019.

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It is not the first time that Transdev has rolled out a free bus system in France; in Aubagne (Bouches-du-Rhône), Libourne (Gironde), and Dunkirk (Nord), buses are already free at the weekends, and there are plans to make them free all week from 2019.

However, free buses are not without their critics, who say that there is no such thing as “free”, and that if bus users do not pay, then the system will simply be funded by taxpayers overall, instead.

“Free transport is pure [political] demagogy,” said Yves Crozet, transport economist at the University of Lyon, also speaking to Le Monde. “It’s not necessarily stupid for small networks, but for Dunkirk or Niort, it is surpassing the high limit of all logical economic sense.”

“[We] are not in favour of free transport,” a spokesperson for the Groupement des autorités responsables de transport (Group of transport authorities; GART) said. “It doesn’t impact the number of cars in circulation, and often damages the perceived image of the network, which is nearly irreversible, since it is politically very difficult to go backwards [to make people pay again].”

Responding to critics, mayor Baloge said: “I am not saying that the free model is viable everywhere, but we have the chance here to create a project for social gain, without raising taxes.”

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