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France: Free public transport takes off in Montpellier​

Lisa Louis

02/21/2024
February 21, 2024

Montpellier is now the biggest metropolitan area in Europe where residents can take public transport for free. Many locals are thrilled, but others worry there won't be cash left to develop the transport network further.

Passengers sitting on a bus
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A free public transport scheme in Montpellier, France is encouraging locals to leave their cars at homeImage: Lisa Louis/DW


Since the 21st of December 2023, the half a million inhabitants of the southern French city of Montpellier and its surroundings no longer have to pay for public transport. Many of them are pleased with the measure – but there are caveats.

Thirty-one-year-old Rayene Chabbi is relieved she no longer has to pay for the bus and the tram she takes to work on weekdays, like on a recent Monday morning.

In the past, she'd often drive her parents' car the seven kilometers (four miles) to the office.

"Free public transport is a really good idea – especially for people like me who think twice before spending €50 ($54) on a monthly subscription. I only earn €1,950 gross each month," she told DW while waiting for her bus.

"It's similar for my sister who now also uses public transport," she added.

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Local Rayene Chabbi, 31, in her office in Montpellier

Rayene Chabbi says free public transport means she no longer drives her parents' car to the officeImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Less stress, better for the environment​

Half an hour later, Chabbi gets off a tram in Montpellier's northeastern neighborhood of Castelnau-le-Lez.

"Taking the car would have taken at least ten minutes longer and I would certainly have been stuck in traffic jams. I like this stress-free way of traveling. Plus, I'm protecting the environment," she said while walking the few hundred meters to the company Simax, where Chabbi works as the manager's assistant.

The mid-sized company, which provides management software for businesses, co-finances the free public transport scheme via a two-percent wage tax, as do about 2,500 other companies in Montpellier that employ 11 staff or more. Overall, the measures cost €30 million ($32 million). That's compared to the city's total budget of €1 billion.

CEO Miren Lafourcade doesn't mind paying up – on the contrary.

"Our company used to be in an area with poor public transport connections. That's why we moved to this location, which is just a 3-minute walk from a tram stop. For once, the taxes we pay are being used for something that benefits society," she told DW.

Simax currently employs 60 people and has an annual turnover of €1.5 million ($1.6 million). It aims to recruit up to ten more staff this year – with sustainability, which includes public transport, set to remain a crucial element of its expansion plans.

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A tram drives through the city of Montpellier in France

The project is co-funded through a 2% wage tax on companies with more than 11 employeesImage: Lisa Louis/DW

Part of larger climate adaptation scheme​

Julie Frêche, vice-president of the metropolis of Montpellier and in charge of transport matters, is pleased with such efforts.

"We aim to implement positive environmental politics. Free public transport increases citizens' purchasing power," she said to DW.

"Plus, the measure improves air quality," Frêche added.

Montpellier is also taking other climate adaptation measures – especially as temperatures here can reach almost 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

The city is planting greenery and will add 50,000 trees by 2026.

"We are also constructing 235 kilometers of additional bike lanes and adding five bus routes to the 41 existing ones and a fifth tram line," Frêche stressed.

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Julie Frêche, vice-president of the metropolis of Montpellier, France

Vice president of the metropolis of Montpellier Julie Frêche says free public transport gives purchasing power back to citizensImage: Lisa Louis/DW

But not everywhere in Montpellier is served in the same way​

That new tramway will also connect Saint-Jean-de-Vedas. The neighboring town, part of greater Montpellier, has about 12,000 residents – and counting. Numerous new apartment blocks are springing up here.

That's why Hugo Daillan thinks more public transport connections will be needed.

The 28-year-old lives in central Montpellier and works in a flower shop in Saint-Jean-de-Vedas. He's traveling with a group of public transport passengers when he speaks with DW.

"This is Saint-Jean-de-Vedas' only tram stop. The tram only runs every 15 minutes, even though at the end of the workday, people need to get home. And so many people here take the car instead. The transport connection is so bad, that the local town hall has set up a shuttle in one district – which you have to pay for," Daillon told DW while pointing at the destination board.

He also stressed that the "free" public transport scheme wasn't actually free.

"The price we are paying is that that money can't be invested in expanding the current transport network," he said.

"When making public transport free, you need to make sure all parts of the city have access to the transport network, especially in a growing city like this one. Or else you only please people in the well-connected center and forget about those living in the outskirts," Daillan said.

Alexandre Brun, lecturer for geography at Montpellier's University Paul-Valéry, agrees with that view.

"The city should also build new connections between suburbs so that you no longer have to travel through the city center to get to another suburb," Brun told DW.

He also fears the wage tax could deter companies from setting up offices in Montpellier.

"And we still need additional companies to bring down unemployment," he added.

Montpellier's unemployment rate stood at 9.6% in 2023, about two points above the national average.

Drivers and economists are fans​

But drivers questioned in Saint-Jean-de-Vedas seemed to welcome the free transport scheme – at least those who don't have to commute to the city center.

"It's very convenient. I now regularly take public transport to go shopping in the city center," Claire Maurin, a 40-year-old nursery school teacher told DW.

Pierre Chanal, 66, was getting out of his car a few meters further down the road.

"Traffic is intense in the city center and parking fees are high," the pensioner told DW. He said that taking public transport is a lot faster and more relaxed.

Fady Hamadé, economist and director of Montpellier-based think tank Institute of Environmental Resources and Sustainable Development Economists, shares that enthusiasm.

"Like every public service, this is a tool for income redistribution," he told DW.

"It has positive external effects. It lowers the city's CO2 emissions and pollution. It also seems to be leading to new shops opening and more social diversity in the city center, as it's easier for people to get around," he added.

Edited by: Kristie Pladson
 
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