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Where in France can you travel on public transport for free?

An increasing number of French local authorities are offering free public transport, in a bid to cut pollution and stimulate local economies - here are some of the places experimenting with letting people travel for free.

Where in France can you travel on public transport for free?
Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Dunkirk

On September 1st 2018, Dunkirk became the largest European urban agglomeration to have an entirely free bus network, serving around 200,000 inhabitants.

Whether you live in Dunkirk or are just visiting, you can travel across the city for free all week long with no need for a ticket or pass.

Mayor Patrice Vergriete first promised free public transport when he was elected to the position in 2014, but “we didn’t want to introduce the measure straight away, because the bus network would not have been able to absorb the effects,” Didier Hubert of the Dunkirk transport authority told The Local.

Instead, the council focused first on improving the service, with extended routes, services every 10 minutes, and buses which trigger traffic lights to turn green. 

According to a report published in September 2019, public transport use had increased by 88 percent since 2017.

Jean-François Montagne, vice-president of the Dunkirk Urban Community in charge of ecological transition said: “If you tell your fellow citizens, ‘Take the bus, it’s good for the planet,’ it won’t work. However, if you say, ‘Take the bus, it’s free, and also it’s good for the planet,’ it works.”

Political leaders from across France, including Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, have visited the coastal city to learn from its example.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo on her visit to Dunkirk. Photo by Philippe HUGUEN / AFP

While Montagne accepts that the Dunkirk model is not necessarily transferable – even before it became free, ticket sales only accounted for 10 percent of the transportation system’s funding, a much smaller proportion than in larger cities – he does believe others will follow. “I really think that in 10 years, every city will have made public transport free.

“They don’t know it yet, but I’m convinced of it.”

READ ALSO French train operator SNCF unveils cheaper fares to tempt customers back

Calais

25 miles up the coast from Dunkirk, another town has taken the plunge. Bus travel in Calais has been free since January 2020. This led to a 70 percent increase in passengers in the first months of the year, before the disruption caused by the pandemic, according to La Voix du Nord.

As in Dunkirk, the measure applies to all passengers; you do not need to show a ticket or proof of residency.

Mayor Natacha Bouchart, of the centre-right Les Républicains party, first announced the measure in November 2018, “in response to the concerns of the ‘yellow vests’ in Calais,” as reported by local newspaper Nord Littoral.

Montpellier’s beautifully decorated trams are free at the weekends for residents. Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Montpellier

Other cities have opted for a gradual approach. In September 2020, Montpellier in south east France made its bus and tram network free for residents on weekends.

The city plans to offer free transportation during the week for resident under-18s and over-65s from September 2021, before making the network entirely free for all residents in 2023.

The choice to exclude visitors from the programme was a political one, according to Julie Frêche, vice-president for transport and mobility at the Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole.

“You need to be a resident to benefit from the measure, to show that, yes, we pay taxes, but these taxes go towards financing ambitious public policies,” she told The Local.

Since the measure was introduced, 80,000 free weekend passes have already been downloaded, and weekend public transport usage has increased by 7 percent despite the effects of the pandemic.

Frêche also believes public transport can help to kickstart the post-lockdown economy.

“We did a study which says that 57 percent of those who made a journey at the weekend, did so because it was free,” she said.

READ ALSO Everything you need to know about taking the train in France

Nantes

On April 24th, the northern French town of Nantes joined Montpellier in offering free travel on weekends.

In Nantes, however, this applies not just to locals, but to visitors as well. The price of an unlimited travel pass has also fallen by 20 percent.

Nancy

In December 2020, the eastern city of Nancy also made public transport free on weekends.

No tickets are needed, meaning anybody can ride for free, residents and tourists alike. This applies to the bus and tram networks, as well as the ‘Citadines’, two lines of mini, electric shuttle buses which can be used for short journeys between different points in the centre of town.

The decision not to limit the offer to residents is an attempt to encourage people who live outside of the city to make the journey into town, according to Patrick Hatzig, vice-president in charge of transport at the Grand Nancy local authority.

“Our original intention was to make public transport attractive again, at a moment when Covid was leading to a fall in passenger numbers,” Hatzig told The Local.

“If it wasn’t for Covid, we would have done it anyway, but that only strengthened our determination. Covid is also an economic crisis, so helping families to come to the city centre and spend money, that has revitalised the economy.”

The council also has plans to develop 200 kilometres of new cycle lanes, and to create faster routes with buses which have priority at traffic lights. “We can only achieve all of that if we have fewer cars in town,” Hatzig said.

Paris

Residents of the greater Paris Île-de-France region who are under 18 are eligible for a full reimbursement of their monthly transport card. In addition, residents aged 14-18 can receive a reimbursement for the Vélib’ bicycle rental scheme.

The policy was introduced ahead of the 2020-21 school year.

During an interview with French media following the creation of the reimbursement scheme, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo hinted that public transportation in the city could become free for everyone by 2026. 

Lyon

In January, France’s third largest city – which has a Green Party mayor – made public transport free for certain residents. The scheme was designed to benefit 130,000 people in the greater Lyon area who are on low incomes or in vulnerable situations.

“The development of public transport is the most efficient method of reducing geographical and social inequalities,” Bruno Bernard, the Green president of the Grand Lyon urban area, said at the time.

The decision to target the least well-off sections of the population reflects a debate which is ongoing in a number of cities, including Nancy: whether free public transport should be universal, or whether resources are best directed towards those who would benefit the most.

One thing seems certain: we are going to see more French cities implement similar policies in the years to come. Strasbourg will add its name to the list in September, when it implements free travel for under-18s.

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LIVING IN FRANCE

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer's here and the time is right for national celebrations, traffic jams, strikes, Paris beaches, and ... changing the rules for new boilers.

What changes in France in July 2022

Summer holidays

The holiday season in France officially begins on Thursday, July 7th, as this is the date when school’s out for the summer. The weekend immediately after the end of the school year is expected to be a busy one on the roads and the railways as families start heading off on vacation.

READ ALSO 8 things to know about driving in France this summer

Strikes

But it wouldn’t really be summer in France without a few strikes – airport employees at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports will walk out on July 1st, while SNCF rail staff will strike on July 6th. Meanwhile Ryanair employees at Paris, Marseille and Toulouse airports will strike on yet-to-be-confirmed dates in July.

READ ALSO How strikes and staff shortages will affect summer in France

Parliamentary fireworks?

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne will present the government’s new programme in parliament on July 5th – this is expected to be a tricky day for the Macron government, not only does it not have the parliamentary majority that it needs to pass legislation like the new package of financial aid to help householders deal with the cost-of-living crisis, but opposition parties have indicated that they will table a motion of no confidence against Borne.

Parliament usually breaks for the summer at the end of July, but a special extended session to allow legislation to be passed means that MPs won’t get to go on holiday until at least August 9th. 

Fête nationale

July 14th is a public holiday in France, commemorating the storming of the Bastille which was the symbolic start of the French Revolution. As usual, towns and cities will host parades and fireworks – with the biggest military parade taking place on the Champs-Elysées in Paris – and many stores will remain closed.

As the national holiday falls on a Thursday this year, many French workers will take the opportunity to faire le pont.

Festival season really kicks in

You know summer’s here when France gets festival fever, with events in towns and cities across the country. You can find our pick of the summer celebrations here.

Paris Plages

The capital’s popular urban beaches return on July 9th on the banks of the Seine and beside the Bassin de la Villette in northern Paris, bringing taste of the seaside to the capital with swimming spots, desk chairs, beach games and entertainment.  

Summer sales end 

Summer sales across most of the country end on July 19th – unless you live in Alpes-Maritimes, when they run from July 6th to August 2nd, or the island of Corsica (July 13th to August 9th).

Tour de France

The Tour de France cycle race sets off on July 1st from Copenhagen and finishes up on the Champs-Elysée in Paris on July 24th.

New boilers

From July 1st, 2022, new equipment installed for heating or hot water in residential or professional buildings, must comply with a greenhouse gas emissions ceiling of 300 gCO2eq/KWh PCI. 

That’s a technical way of saying oil or coal-fired boilers can no longer be installed. Nor can any other type of boiler that exceeds the ceiling.

As per a decree published in the Journal Officiel in January, existing appliances can continue to be used, maintained and repaired, but financial aid of up to €11,000 is planned to encourage their replacement. 

Bike helmets

New standards for motorbike helmets come into effect from July 1st. Riders do not need to change their current helmets, but the “ECE 22.05” standard can no longer be issued – and all helmets sold must adhere to a new, more stringent “ECE 22.06” standards from July 2024

New cars

From July 6th new car models must be equipped with a black box that record driving parameters such as speed, acceleration or braking phases, wearing (or not) of a seat belt, indicator use, the force of the collision or engine speed, in case of accidents.

New cars II

From July 1st, the ecological bonus for anyone who buys an electric vehicle drops by €1,000, while rechargeable hybrids will be excluded from the aid system, “which will be reserved for electric vehicles whose CO2 emission rate is less than or equal to 20g/km”.

What’s in a name?

Historically, the French have been quite restrictive on the use of family names – remember the concern over the use of birth names on Covid vaccine documents? – but it becomes easier for an adult to choose to bear the name of his mother, his father, or both by a simple declaration to the civil status. All you have to do is declare your choice by form at the town hall of your home or place of birth.

Eco loans

In concert with the new boiler rules, a zero-interest loan of up to €30,000 to finance energy-saving renovations can be combined with MaPrimeRénov’, a subsidy for financing the same work, under certain conditions, from July 1st.

Rent rules

Non-professional private landlords advertising properties for rent must, from July 1st, include specific information about the property on the ad, including the size of the property in square metres, the area of town in which the property is in, the monthly rent and any supplements, whether the property is in a rent-control area, and the security deposit required. Further information, including the full list of requirements for any ad, is available here.

Perfume ban

More perfumes are to be added to a banned list for products used by children, such as soap-making kits, cosmetic sets, shampoos, or sweet-making games, or toys that have an aroma.

Atranol, chloroatranol (extracts of oak moss containing tannins), and methyl carbonate heptin, which smells like violets, will be banned from July 5th, because of their possible allergenic effects.

Furthermore, 71 new allergenic fragrances – including camphor, menthol, vanilin, eucalyptus spp. leaf oil, rose flower oil, lavendula officinalis, turpentine – will be added to the list of ingredients that must be clearly indicated on a toy or on an attached label.

Ticket resto limits

The increased ticket resto limit ended on June 30th, so from July 1st employees who receive the restaurant vouchers will once again be limited to spending €19 per day in restaurants, cafés and bars. The limit was increased to €38 during the pandemic, when workers were working from home.

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