Sifting Through The French Free Transport Experiment

Did you know that French cities collect a transport tax?

The tax is levied on all companies with more than nine employees. The rate varies locally but ranges between 1% and 2.5% of the payroll.

This is captured in great detail in a research report by Georges Dobias titled Urban Transport in France. The paper notes that the money is used to fund public transport infrastructure projects and operations.

Let us turn back the clock to get a good understanding of how this came to be.

The tax was conceptualized in 1971 during a congress on mass transit held in Tours, West-Central France. During the congress, transport experts and government officials debated how public transport could be improved

The tax was first rolled out in Paris before being extended to other cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants in 1973.

To get a glimpse of the impact of this new policy, in 1993, France posted transport tax revenues of more than FFr17 billion (USD2.9 billion), with Paris contributing FFr9.4 billion (USD1.6 billion) while the other cities contributed FFr7.6 billion (USD1.3 billion) to the pie.

The French government justifies the tax by arguing the critical role of public transport in the employment market. The government also argues that more opportunities will open up to employers if an efficient public transport system is in place.

To ensure that the funds were running correctly and that there were bodies to carry out public transport projects and handle operations, Organizing Authorities (OAs) were created by the local boroughs.

Their mandate was to be the agencies responsible for public transport in the cities.

In 1981, the OAs were ratified via legislation.

They now receive the transport revenues and strictly spend the money on

  • Regulation of public transport services
  • The organisation of public transport in the cities
  • Creation and management of transport infrastructure
  • Development of information systems

There are currently 105 OAs in France.

The Coordination Problem

The establishment of the different OAs to run public transport in their respective cities has had its teething problems.

As noted by another research report authored by Pierre Zembri titled Integrating Public Transport management in France: how to manage gaps between mono-scale policies the independent working nature of the OAs has hindered the ideal scenario where the authorities ought to be working together to create a seamless public transport model across France.

As it stands, each OA is not obligated to coordinate its operations with its equivalent in different cities.

For instance, various policies that are supposed to be applied jointly are not necessarily run by the same departments. On top of that, the financing systems also vary.

“This leads to integration difficulties and a lower level of overall efficiency in the public transport offering and the organisation of alternative individual modes of transport such as walking and cycling,” the report notes.

The report concludes that France needs to benchmark other European countries, notably Austria and Germany, on how best the country can maintain the different public transport decision-making levels but have them look at the bigger picture.

It would be possible to retain the existing number of decision-making levels, even though this is the only country in Europe with so many, but this would require the pooling of services and financing within the framework of a  German or  Austrian type of pricing community whose perimeter would need to be much larger than those of the existing PTUs.


Free Transport?

Following the decision by the Northern French city of Dunkirk to drop fares on local networks in September 2018, a move that gave the metropolitan area’s 200,000 residents free access to 18 bus routes, there is pressure on other French cities to follow suit.

As reported by the BBC, the idea of “free public transport” is gaining traction in the country. Its proponents argue creating green and sustainable networks will be a big boon for the country, especially for the communities in need.

Eco-friendly tramway in Nantes, France. The country views public transport as a means to cut down on pollution. {Image Source: Wikimedia Foundation via Pinterest}
Eco-friendly tramway in Nantes, France. The country views public transport as a means to cut down on pollution. {Image Source: Wikimedia Foundation via Pinterest}

Paris has already started implementing its version of this. Free public transport was rolled out for under-18s for the 2020 school calendar.

Strasbourg is scheduled to roll out the same beginning September 2021.

In the same vein, the residents of Nantes began travelling for free on weekends in April 2021.

Multiple other cities are toying with the idea of making public transport free for its inhabitants or, more realistically, a section of the population.

Getting Around France

Buses and trams are the most popular means of transport in most French cities. Because of high activity in the town centre, it is effortless for a passenger to catch a bus or board a tram.

In Paris, the metro is the most popular mode of transport. It operates until 1:00 am on weekdays and until 2:00 am on Fridays and Saturdays.

When the metro ceases operating, a night bus network takes over.

Aside from Paris, five French cities have metro lines, including Lille, Marseille, Toulouse, Rennes, and Lyon.

France is also popular for its high-speed trains known as the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse).

With that synopsis, let’s take a look at the different types of public transport in France.

Bus Transport

Regardless of the technological advancements, buses are the most prevalent form of transportation across France.

They are the most preferred mode of transport in villages. They are also standard for travel between suburbs in large cities.

They are also conducive for travel in Central Business Districts (CBDs) and ferrying passengers in and out of the business hubs.

Local buses are either operated at the local or regional level. They also connect rural villages with regional centres.

Tickets are available for purchase at

  • Bus stops
  • Local tobacconists
  • Onboard from the driver

Tips for Bus Transport in France

  • It is wise to validate your ticket before you board. Failure to do this attracts hefty fines.
  • Do not fold your ticket. The ticket machines struggle to validate folded tickets.
  • In rural areas, bus schedules close in the early evening hours. It is essential to work within the operator’s schedule.


Considering that France is one of the largest countries in Europe, inter-city travel tends to be very long and tedious. Consequently, many French citizens opt for high-speed trains when making this kind of trip.

However, the poorest sections of the French population cannot afford to ride in the high-speed trains, which leaves buses as the viable alternative.

Several private bus companies offer intercity and inter-region bus travel, including Flixbus, Eurolines, and Ouibus.

There are also areas not served by the TGV making coaches the best available option.

Technology in French Bus Transport

Is there room for technological innovation that will yield optimal results for French bus and coach operators?


According to Arnaud Julien, the Innovation and Digital Director at Keolis, a French public transport company, the firm has tapped Big Data to investigate digital trends in French public transport.

One of the main findings our research revealed is how important the use of smartphones and travel apps are to customers. These have revolutionized the collection of passenger information, and we have introduced new initiatives to help take advantage of this opportunity.


The findings of that research informed the company’s development of its “all-in-one” Plan Book Ticket app, which helps passengers buy, book, and validate their travel tickets via their smartphones. The app launched in June 2017 has already been rolled out in several cities across France.

Metro Transport

Within French cities, metros are the most relied-on mode of transport.

As mentioned above, Paris, Marseille, Lyon, Rennes, and Toulouse all have metro systems that link neighbourhoods and the city centre.

They are relied upon because they are the most efficient and quickest way to travel in cities.

The downside of French metros is that they do not operate at night, meaning that residents and visitors have to catch a local night bus after the metros close.

The Paris Metro is undoubtedly the biggest and most technologically advanced in the country.

It has a network of 300 stations and covers a huge chunk of neighbourhoods in the French Capital.

The Paris metro is operated by RATP, the state-owned authority of the Paris region.

Important Pointers

  • Although the Paris metro is one of the best in the world, peak hours are very busy. Where possible, it is advisable to travel outside these hours.
  • Buying multi-journey tickets is more economical than buying single tickets. They can be purchased at all French metro systems offices.
  • Pickpockets are a nightmare in metros, especially in Paris. The pickpockets tend to target people who they think look like tourists.

Technology in French Metro Transport

According to a report published by the European Union Agency For Railways titled Big Data in Railways, one of the ways technology is being used to improve metro transport (not specific to France) is through tapping into data history and using algorithms to forecast delays and identify events or scenarios that might lead to late departures and arrivals.

When the system detects the same type of pattern, an alert is raised to the traffic controller to make timely interventions. This application of the technology is interesting because it makes use of historical data to detect unknown causes of delays (machine learning) but also because it allows the traffic controller to simulate the effectiveness of possible solutions.


Tram Transport

Although France closed most of its tramways in the mid-20th century, it walked back on that decision decades ago and is now the world leader in tram transport.

Beginning 2000, some 20 French cities have re-opened their tram networks which have bolstered their local mobility.

Because most of the trams operating in various French cities are still new, the trams tend to be clean, affordable, and modern.

In some of the cities, trams represent the quickest and most efficient mode of transport into central areas.

One significant advantage of using tram transport is that they can be used in conjunction with other local transport options as part of single-journey tickets.

Trams tickets are bought at ticket machines near the tram stop or the nearest train station.

Important Pointer

  • It is essential to have a valid ticket once you board a tram. Presenting an invalid ticket or failing to have a valid one attracts hefty fines.

Technology in French Tram Transport

According to a research report authored by Jamal Maktoubian, Mohebollah Noori, Mehran Ghasempour-Mouziraji, and Mahta Amini dubbed Analyzing Large-Scale Smart Card Data to Investigate Public Transport Travel Behaviour Using Big Data Analytics, Big Data can be used in various public transport modes such as the French trams to study passenger travel patterns.

Machine learning, data mining algorithm, and analytic methods could help us to explore passenger trip purpose, identify transit use cycle and travel patterns among card segments, and to measure travel patterns for different types of passengers.


Train Transport

SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français) is the agency responsible for operating French trains. This includes the bullet trains (TGVs) and the slower intercity and regional trains.

Bullet Trains

As mentioned earlier in this article, France is known for its bullet trains known as the TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse).

The TGV runs at 357.2 miles per hour.  At that mileage, the TGV sits pretty among the fastest high-speed trains in the world.

In France, the TGV is boarded by passengers who desire fast travel between cities or those intending to travel long distances. The train ferries passengers to every corner of France. It also transcends French borders and operates routes to Brussels (Belgium), Luxembourg, Milan (Italy), and Barcelona (Spain).

Most cities in France are connected to the high-speed rail network.

General Trains

Train travel is cheaper in France compared to other European countries, especially on non-TGV routes.

Paris residents have the express commuter train RER (Réseau Express Régional) at their disposal. This line links Central Paris to the satellite areas.

Technology in French Train Transport

Is this the best that can be achieved?

No. There is room for improvement, and that is where Big Data comes in.

According to a research report authored by Adithya Thaduri, Diego Galar, and Uday Kumar titled Railway Assets: A Potential Domain for Big Data Analytics, Big Data technology can be deployed in high-speed railway transport to look into maintenance aspects for maximum customer experience.

Big Data analytics can identify the behaviour of bottlenecks, maximum loads, variation in traffic, unplanned delay timings, inspection timings and accidents that will impact customers’ comfort, business losses and asset reputation.


Free Transport Dream

The benefits of rolling out free transport are immense.

As captured by the BBC report, Dunkirk’s decision to drop fares on local networks in September 2018 has gone a long way in helping the industrial port cut down on carbon emissions and revitalize the region.

We have also established that a majority of French cities are trialling free public transportation.

That will take time, the most feasible outcome at first will be to make it free for a section of citizens or free on some days like weekends just as Paris and Nantes have done respectively.

These plans will not be easy to achieve. To make commuters prefer public transport will require it to be very efficient.

It is not impossible though, studying commuter behaviour, traffic history and the archive of events and incidents will be the first step in realizing this dream.

Can somebody say the magic words?

You got that right — Big Data.