Should public transportation be free?

A commuter pulls his bicycle in front of metro gates at the Paris central tube station Les Halles.

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Kai Ryssdal: A single ticket on the Paris Metro costs 1.70 euros -- about $2.15 at today's rate of exchange. Not bad as fares go for a major world-class city. But for some Metro riders in Paris, the actual amount isn't really the point. They don't want to pay at all. It's not about skipping out on the fare itself. It's about whether urban transit ought to cost anything to begin with.

From down in the Paris Metro, John Laurenson reports.


John Laurenson: At this station, you've got to be pretty fit and pretty daring to climb over the turnstile. The doors have been built really high to stop you. But every so often, a fare dodger gets through, bunched close behind a ticket-holder, often asking politely if they may do so.

Now, an underground group (no pun intended) of hardened fare dodgers have launched an insurance scheme for people like this and are urging others to group together and do the same. They pay $10 a month into a kitty they can dip into if they get a fine.

But even with fines as low as $70, fare-dodging does not pay, says Olivier Cots of the company that runs the Paris Metro. He predicts the insurance scheme will fail

Olivier Cots: The idea of an insurance pool seems attractive enough, but after the 10,000th or 20,000th fine, I'd be very surprised if they managed to keep it in business.

The fare dodgers organising this insurance scheme are called Resistance to Paid Transport. They have links with a far left group called the New Anticapitalist Party. They hold monthly meetings in Paris. When I went along to a meeting, they told me saving money was not their goal. The fare dodgers wanted to spark a debate among Metro riders and in the media about making city transport as free as many other public services. But they refused to be interviewed on tape.

Paying customers -- like Charlotte Weismann, Jean-Roch Chasles and Sandrine Corby -- were happy to say what they thought of the idea.

Charlotte Weismann: Yeah, of course it should be free. That's the kind of thing everybody needs. Should be provided by the state, like education and health care.

Jean-Roch Chasles: I don't think it's really a good idea. To pay for the Metro is a way to make people more responsible for it. If it's a free, you'll have a lot of vandalism.

Sandrine Corby: Our taxes are so high here already. Thirty-five to 40 percent of my income to URSAFF, which covers all the social programs. So, for me, one more thing free means more taxes for me.

Ten French cities pushed aside these objections and decided to offer free public transit. Cedric Durand, an economist with Paris' Sorbonne University, says they figure their systems are so heavily subsidized already -- usually to the tune of 80 percent of the real cost -- they might as well go the whole way. And, he says, the results have been spectacular

Cedric Durance: In Aubagne, for example, they introduced free public transportation one year ago. And, in one year, they observed an increase of 74 percent of use of public transportation.

But whether free transport would have the same effect in Paris is arguable. When those smaller towns made transport free, their public transport consisted only of under-utilized bus services. Paris has a subway system stuffed full of the four and half million passengers it carries every day. Its scope for expansion is minimal. Paris's subway company says 96 percent of its passengers buy tickets, generating $2.5 billion of revenue a year -- something they don't plan on giving up.

In Paris , I'm John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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