London and Paris are old friends – literally. We’ve had an official friendship agreement with them since 2001. And just as friends inspire us in real life, some of our transport strategies are often inspired by our French friends.
They had the Vélib and we copied them with Boris bikes, they had driverless Tubes and Boris is making us do it and…. ok Boris, who speaks French, has done a lot.
The French have borrowed from us too though. They went contactless after we did and it’s probably no coincidence that Paris’ underground network is called the ‘Métropolitan’ following our Metropolitan line, which was the world’s first Tube.
The long and short of it is that we share a transport agenda.
And yet, how we run our transport systems day-to-day – and indeed who runs them – is where the two countries differ.
In London, it’s effectively the Mayor (currently Sadiq Khan) who is entirely in charge. In Paris, it’s several different people, including the Mayor of Paris but also a politician called “President of the Regional Council”. The role is a bit like a supercouncil leader or a Governor.
Today (June 20) Parisians are going to vote for their regional councillors including the President.
One of the candidates, Audrey Pulvar is campaigning with one core promise.
“On the 20th June, you will have the possibility to vote for free transport: this huge measure for spending power, for social justice and for responsible action against climate change.”
Audrey Pulvar heads up the left-wing ‘Ile-de-France en Commun’ ticket, endorsed by the Socialist Party (the French equivalent of Labour) and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, a political friend and ally of Sadiq Khan on the world stage.
Like the UK, France has a centre-right government which often clashes with the centre-left capital city Mayor and Assembly.
In Pulvar’s plan, every September from this year certain groups of people, starting with under 18s and job-seekers under 25s, would no longer have to pay fares until September 2026 when everyone would eventually travel for free.
It would be paid for using a new law introduced by the Macron Government’s “Loi Climat” (climate law) which allows local councils to start ‘ecological taxes’ as long as the government agrees.
Pulvar stated in a TV debate on June 9 that she would consider taking advantage of this by looking “notably at the transport of goods by road” suggesting that logistics companies and their customers would have to cough up.
She argued that even if fare revenue was lost “investment money is guaranteed.” Just under half of the 10 million Euro budget per year is wholly from taxes and investment. Paris, unlike London, does not rely on fares as much.
Attacked by her opponents in the debate over this financing model she replied: “When we want to put in place public services for the least well off, everybody protests. When we want to cut taxes for the richest, everybody shuts up.”
The wealth tax cut lost the Ile-de-France region (Paris and its suburbs) 1.5 million Euros. Scrapping fares loses it three million Euros.
A reduction in passenger numbers lost 2.6 million Euros in 2020, although it did not bankrupt the transport authority like it did on our side of the Channel.
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Paris also currently has four new metro lines, two extensions and an airport shuttle under construction. Much of this is already financed so would be unaffected initially but once open would have high operating costs.
Here in London, free transport has never been in a major candidate’s manifesto.
The closest we’ve had to someone promising free transport was Laurence Fox. The anti-establishment right-winger, who came sixth in the May 2021 election with 1.9% of votes, said he would make TfL services free for six months to boost the economy post-lockdown. Some of the minor candidates were open to the idea, with last place Valerie Brown saying she would have disbanded TfL and replaced it with a citizens assembly.
Free transport isn’t really the most popular political idea in the UK because it means either the government, councils or transport companies themselves have to foot the bill.
In fact the government recently forced TfL to take away free travel from under 18s and there are proposals for over…
Read More: ‘Free public transport for everyone!’: A look at whether the Paris plan for free