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Gratuit bus service freed up French town since 1975

Calais has become the latest French town to make its buses free – reporting an increase in passengers of up to 70% since making the change on January 2. We speak to the town of Compiègne, the first place in France, and in fact Europe, to do this back in 1975

Calais has joined Dunkirk, Niort, Aubagne and about 30 other French towns in offering totally free public buses.

For decades, millions of passengers have enjoyed free travel on public buses in Compiègne, in Oise, northern France.

It was the first city to make public buses free in France – and, at the time, Europe – in 1975. Left-wing mayor Jean Legendre, a former journalist, made the move to help residents without cars to move around.

Compiègne council worker Nicolas Leday, who is in charge of transport, said: “In 1975, not everyone had a car so it was complicated to get to work.

“The bus was an easy way to go, or to do food shopping. The buses are now full [six million use them annually] and residents ask for some routes to be reinforced.”

The city of 80,000 residents now has 15 routes, working in a radius of 15 kilometres across neighbouring communes.

The bus service is financed by regional and departmental subsidies for school transport and by the “versement transport”, a tax that every commune can ask from companies with more than 11 employees.

Companies pay this to the town, with the amount dependent on the number of employees and the level of their salaries.

Compiègne communications manager Anne Soleil said: “It works well. Everyone is pleased with the service.

“The only problem can be that sometimes people forget to buy a ticket when they travel in another town!”

Making transport free – apart from on Sundays, when people have to pay €1 to get onboard – has resulted in fewer cars in the town centre, meaning less pollution and fewer people complaining about not finding a parking spot.

Mr Leday said: “The centre of Compiègne is small, with a lot of little streets, so it is complicated to drive around.”

It is good for business. He said: “People come more easily to the town centre and obviously shop.”

The town has also created an on-demand service, where residents pay €2 for a ticket and can call and “reserve” a bus trip at a certain time – a regular bus will make a diversion.

In Calais, passengers still have to get a bus ticket – but at no charge – before boarding, so as to measure traveller numbers.

People who have already bought tickets or who have an annual card were reimbursed.

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