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Starting this month, Parisians under the age of 18 can travel on the city’s public transit network free of charge. Timed to coincide with the return to schools after France’s summer break, a new policy from Paris City Hall will see all young people who apply reimbursed for the cost of an annual pass “within five to six weeks,” with some restrictions. It still requires applicants to pay some money upfront for their ticket and benefits only young people living within the 2.2 million resident City of Paris itself. The plan nonetheless represents another step in an ongoing campaign to make Paris’s public transit cheaper and more accessible — a process that might end up eventually with the city offering a fully free network.
These steps started in June 2018, when transit authority RATP made city travel free for those 65 and up, bringing France’s capital into line with other countries, such as the U.K., that grant free transit access to older people. In September 2019, children under 11 and all minors with disabilities were granted free travel, and middle- and high-school-aged children were given a 75% discount. This year, these changes have also rippled out into the suburbs. On Sept. 1, the larger Île-de-France region that covers Greater Paris also introduced an almost-free annual pass for children between 4 and 11 years old, costing just 24 euros a year.
So far, Mayor Anne Hidalgo has held back from marking fully free travel as an ultimate goal for the city, with a city-commissioned report released in January 2019 stating that cost-free transit was “not the only alpha and omega of mobility policy.” But there are hints from the city that these plans may go further. Talking to news magazine 20 Minutes, Green Party Paris transit commissioner — and kingmaker in the coalition negotiations that saw Mayor Hidalgo reelected in June’s second round election — called the move “a very important step in favor of going free,” an objective that he would support despite acknowledging the financial challenges involved in forgoing farebox revenue. On a continent where entire countries (admittedly, very small ones) have either, like Luxembourg, made public transit entirely free or, like Estonia, moved substantially in that direction, the plan isn’t necessarily far-fetched. Some smaller French cities, including Dunkirk, have already made their public transit free of charge. And the public transit agency serving Los Angeles, located in a country with a skeptical attitude to transit subsidies, is exploring the possibility of removing charges for buses and trains.
The free passes for Paris minors nonetheless come at a time when, as ridership has plummeted during the pandemic, public transit funding in Greater Paris is under strain. Across Île-de-France, trains, buses, trams and metro lines have lost an estimated 2.6 billion euros in revenue since March, money that regional authorities are seeking to replenish with a government bailout. Given that Greater Paris relies heavily on transit and has a population of more than 12 million people, the funds being asked for are comparatively modest compared to other sectors. (See, for example the up to 12 billion euros requested to keep national air carrier Air France afloat.)
Cutting off an income stream at such a time might still prove controversial. Across the English Channel, for example, the U.K. national government has gone in the other direction entirely. Transport for London, overseen by London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan, has been forced to abolish free bus travel for 11 to 18-year-olds in the British capital (a policy that had been in place since 2005) as well as to cancel free travel for seniors during peak hours in return for bailout funds. The Paris program has been able to proceed in part because the population it covers is smaller — out of a population of 2.2 million, around 135,000 young people stand to potentially benefit from the free passes — and because ticket revenues already cover only 27% of Île-de-France’s public transit budget, compared to the 52.5% that TfL’s pre-pandemic projections for 2020-21 predicted would come from passenger income. Furthermore, free travel for young people was a campaign promise during Mayor Hidalgo’s reelection bid. The plan may stretch the city’s transit budget a little tighter, but for now it seems that voters are on board.
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