Book Review: Travellers Without Tickets, Freedom and Equality at No Cost: A Social Experiment in Aubagne

Too often we feel trapped in conventional ways of thinking. Aubagne shows us to think first of the public good, and then get creative on how to achieve it.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published July 28, 2015

Book review: Voyageurs sans ticket, Liberté egalité gratuité: une expérience sociale à Aubagne (Travellers without tickets, Freedom and Equality at No Cost: a Social Experiment in Aubagne)

By Magali Giovannangeli and Jean-Loui Sagot Duvauroux with an introduction by artist Hervé di Rosa.

Published by Éditions Au diable vauvert, 2012.

The e-book version is available for free at

From time to time it's helpful to reconsider established ideas about how society should work, and in particular how public services should be provided. One of the most important, and interesting, questions is which public services are most beneficial (or even essential) and how they should be financed.

As societies evolve, the notion of what is truly essential to be fully human evolves as well. Two hundred years ago, governments provided very little in the way of public services: charity and education was organized in a patchwork way by religious groups and essentials didn't extend much beyond minimal standards of food and shelter.

As societies became richer, the ideas about what a human being requires to be fully human have expanded.

Now, almost no one in industrialized societies would dispute that basic education and health care are essential. Most would agree that access to a telephone and the internet are now more or less essential. And the ability to travel easily, at least in one's own city, is necessary to find work and interact socially.

Governments now provide all sorts of essential and less essential services, and education, health care and transport are seen as key. But what proportion of these services should be provided by the government and how should they financed?

Aubagne Eliminates Transit Fares

This book considers the question of how the choice of funding model for municipal public transit affects the lives of residents and the social fabric of the city.

The authors consider the case of the regional municipality of Aubagne-Étoile, an amalgamation of many smaller towns 17 km from Marseille. On 15 May 2009, Aubagne eliminated fares on all its bus routes. Even more, it decided that its planned tramway (LRT) would also be free to ride.

Alstom Citadis Compact LRT vehicles (Image Credit: Billy69150. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Alstom Citadis Compact LRT vehicles (Image Credit: Billy69150. Licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The book begins by dealing with the claim that free public transit is crazy, irresponsible or utopian.

The authors - one of whom, Giovannangeli, is currently president of Aubagne-Étoile - remind their readers that how public services are financed is a political question, and different jurisdictions make different choices and these choices change over time. By "free" we mean paid entirely out of either general or targeted taxes, with no direct user fees.

Education to the end of high school has been free in Canada for the past hundred years. But students must pay fees for university. However, in Scotland, France and Germany university is also free.

Most health care (with the notable exceptions of prescription drugs and dentistry) is free in Canada, which makes us just about the only country in the world with no user fees or a dual private-public health care model.

Museums are free in the United Kingdom. Many parks now charge entry fees, but didn't in the past. And, of course, all roads in Canada are free to use (with the exception of Highway 407).

But somehow, the idea of free public transit seems strange and unnatural, even in France. (Somewhat surprisingly, Calgary has free LRT in the downtown core, but no Canadian city has an entirely free transit system.)

Giovannangeli and Duvauroux are careful to emphasize that they consider Aubagne to be a particular case, and that free public transit is not the solution to all problems everywhere.

However, it is interesting precisely because it is an extreme experiment. Rather than tinkering with reduced rates for the poor, the unemployed, seniors or students as we've tried in Hamilton, the solution is to eliminate fares for everyone all the time.

Aubagne City Centre (Image Credit: Kremtak. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
Aubagne City Centre (Image Credit: Kremtak. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Why is Free the Right Price?

Why did the politicians in Aubagne come to the conclusion that free was the right price?

First, they were concerned about the bad social effects of fares on young people - particularly, the poorer young people living in social housing outside the city core. Because of the cost, many young people never went downtown and stayed in their projects. And when they did take the bus, they often tried to ride without paying, which led to fights with drivers and the police and a feeling that the city buses were an instrument of oppression, not a service for them.

Secondly, the buses were not operating anywhere near capacity. Since transit is an essential service, the best policy is to maximize use, especially since the marginal cost of additional passengers is zero until extra buses are required.

Before thinking that paying a bus fare shouldn't make much of a difference, think of a family of five in Hamilton deciding whether to drive or take the bus. Unless the children already happen to have monthly passes or a special student student ticket or presto card, children over four must pay the regular $2.55 adult fare.

This makes it prohibitively expensive for a family to take the bus instead of driving: a return trip for two adults and three children would cost $25.50, roughly 25 times the cost of driving 10 km! No wonder most families drive.

Finally, the portion of revenues from fares was relatively small, just over 6 percent of the total cost, compared with about 50 percent in Hamilton.

Interestingly, the city had already contracted out its bus services to the multinational Veolia, which seems to have simplified the transition.

Before going free, the bus service was financed from three sources: the city itself through general taxes (8.3 M euros), a special transit tax paid in France by all local businesses with more than 9 employees (3.2 M euros) and fare revenue (710,000 euros).

Going free eliminated the 220,000 euros costs of managing the fares, and the city negotiated a flat rate of 0.40 euros per trip to be paid to Veolia. All buses were equipped with simple electronic sensors to count entering and exiting passengers so routes and schedules could be optimized - and so Veolia could be paid.

Because of the projected increase in passengers, the city planned for the purchase of three extra buses in 2009, four in 2010 and two in 2011. The net increased cost to the city was estimated at 1.07M euros per year.

However, luckily for Aubagne, they had just incorporated an additional town into the region, which bumped the total population to 104,000, just over the 100,000 threshold that allowed them to increase the transit tax from 0.6 percent to 1.05 percent.

Further, because they were planning a tramway, they could increase the tax to 1.8 percent. This increase in transit tax revenues more than compensated for the decrease in fare revenues and made the financial argument easy.

In contrast, Hamilton previously used the fact its population was just under 500,000 as an excuse to spend most of its gas tax on roads rather than transit. This continues today, even though Hamilton's population is now 535,000.

Interestingly, the higher transit taxes had no effect on employment rates and businesses generally saw it as a zero sum deal, since people would have the equivalent amount of money to spend and their employees' standard of living would increase (without a pay rise).

Also, increased mobility allows a more optimal match between jobs and employees.

The main obstacle came from the prefect of the region, who declared the free fare structure illegal. Luckily, the municipality was able to have the prefect's decision overturned in court.

The Fitch ratings agency also criticized free transit as fiscally irresponsible, but their concerns have had no effect on the rates the city pays to borrow money.

Great Success

Overall, free transit appears to have been a great success on all counts.

The city had projected that transit trips would increase by 58 percent in two years and by 87 percent by 2017. However, in reality transit use jumped by 58 percent the first day and had increased by 142 percent by 2011. This shows there was huge latent demand for transit that was held back by the fares.

As a thought experiment, imagine how car use would change if you had to insert a credit card each time you got into your car to pay the $25 per day it costs just to keep a car on the road, and then pay a per-kilometre rate as you drove.

Aubagne hired the advertising and public relations firm Anatome to run the publicity campaign and to interview residents about how their behaviour changed as a result of the free transit.

Perhaps surprisingly, Anatome did not emphasize price (i.e. "free!"), but rather freedom: the ability to travel easily and freely around the city when and where you want and as often as you want. Freedom of movement proved very seductive!

63 percent of the additional trips were by people who would have taken a car in the past. 52 percent of existing users took more trips. Free transit was particularly appreciated by the young (16-25), who said it made them feel appreciated by the city, rather than excluded.

The cost per trip was cut almost in half from 3.93 euros, roughly the same as in Hamilton, to 2.04 euros when fare were eliminated. This is the gain in efficiency from running fuller buses.

It also became quicker to load and unload buses because there was no need to collect fares.

Free transit was also a big boost to social cohesion: no more conflicts with drivers, who were particularly happy because they could concentrate on driving rather than collecting and policing fares; a reduction in the stigma of taking the bus; and more people of all ages taking more trips to discover different parts of the city and meet friends.

People started using the bus in different ways, for multiple short trips, even for fun.

Before free transit, the modal transportation split was similar to Hamilton and similar to most other small-medium size French cities: 80 percent of trips were by car, 10 percent by transit and 10 percent by foot.

Free transit saw the number of car trips decrease to 70 percent, with a proportional decrease in pollution and vehicle crashes.

There are now 20 other cities in France with free transit, but Aubagne is the only one with a population greater than 100,000. The experiment seems to have been successful, and it would now be politically impossible to go back to fares (imagine getting rid of free public health care in Canada).

The authors predict that once driverless buses become common and transit costs plummet, free transit will become economically feasible for more cities.

Hamilton got rid of fare zones decades ago. Paris has recently gone from five fare zones to just one, to increase mobility and in the interests of fairness - the richest residents living and working in the centre paid 500 euros per year less than those living in the poorer outer suburbs.

Beyond the narrow question of how to finance public transit, the book reminds the reader that the current free enterprise model of supply/demand is not the only way to look at the costs and benefits of public services.

It emphasizes that free transit is above all a triumph of politics and free thinking. The politicians decided first that free transit would be good for the city and then worked out how to make it happen.

Too often we feel trapped in conventional ways of thinking. Aubagne shows us to think first of the public good, and then get creative on how to achieve it.

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.


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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted July 28, 2015 at 09:30:16

Very interesting experiment! I knew about Calgary's downtown segment, but wasn't aware that so many smaller cities in France did this. It would be interesting if Metrolinx was feeling generous enough to give Hamilton the Lower City segment of A-Line for free.

This would be reimbursed by the GO station traffic, and allow shuttling between the two GO stations in the event that you miss the train at one of them.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2015-07-28 09:30:31

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted July 28, 2015 at 10:18:43

Very interesting. I note that the previous amount of fare collected was 710,000 euroes, and the cost of collecting and handling fares was 220,000. So the cost of eliminating fares was 490,000 euroes in a city with a population a little over 100,000. Or the equivalent of about $CAN 50 per person.

I see from the article that there was also the equivalent of a little over $CAN 100 per person in extra capital costs for system expansion due to the increased demand. And that's "fiscally irresponsible"?

I would suggest that better examples of fiscal irresponsibility are things like Hamilton's proposed $25 million Clappison's Corners boondoggle. Or the millions we've poured down the airport rathole. Now that's fiscal irresponsibility.

Comment edited by KevinLove on 2015-07-28 10:19:07

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By mdrejhon (registered) - website | Posted July 30, 2015 at 14:24:00

Related topic -- this brings the argument to whether Toronto should gain farezones or not. People are thinking Toronto should gain them, given the reach of TTC into Vaughan now.

And with the bidirectional 2-way faregates being purchased, the tapin-tapout capability makes it easier to add farezones to the TTC subway.

This would go against the grain of this. There's pros/cons, and now we consider the GO system. Due to large distances, commuter trains, high speed trains, and airplanes have de-facto farezones -- the farther you go, the more you pay.

Toronto is not as compact as Paris and many of these little towns, so free transit or single-farezone GO trains would be a royal challenge, given the structural asymmetries forced by distance...

That said, 416-area GO RER trains could be single-farzoned (The GO RER segments that covers the "SmartTrack" length, for example). Beyond 2017 will be when the fare integration excitements begin to occur for Toronto, when the entire TTC is presto-ized like the rest of the GTHA already is. The fare integeration fun begins.

Comment edited by mdrejhon on 2015-07-30 14:26:57

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted July 30, 2015 at 14:52:32 in reply to Comment 113194

I should have emphasized that the "Paris" that had gone from five fare zones to one is essentially Ile-de-France: which is actually much larger in size (12,000 km^2) than greater Toronto (7000 km^2) extending from Burlington to Clarington and north to Peel. This is a huge area for a single fare zone and is more or less equivalent to a single fare zone for all of the GTHA.Île-de-Fra...

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2015-07-30 14:56:01

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