The concept of making public transport free for users, which started in Europe, is increasingly gaining followers around the world, including in the United States. The idea is to reduce the number of cars in city centers in order to reduce CO2 emissions and make the air more breathable.
The most symbolic example of such an initiative can be seen in Detroit. Long known as the "Motor City" because it is home to the headquarters of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Detroit now intends to prioritize public transportation over cars. The initiative started with its QLine light rail system, which is now free to travel on until the end of this year. This line connects a business district, a shopping district and a university. This experiment is still limited in length (the line is about 5 km long) and in time, but it's a program that is making a statement in a city and country known for being built around cars.
San Francisco is also taking baby steps, offering free bus service to children and teens under 18. However, other cities, such as Alexandria, Virginia, are going further by modifying their network to serve more of the busiest neighborhoods, in addition to making transportation free.
There is not yet enough hindsight in the United States to assess the concrete impact of this type of decision. In Europe, a study published in 2016 showed that people who use public transport were more influenced by its accessibility than by the fares. In cities offering free transportation, ridership increased dramatically but without any real impact on car traffic, as most users actually switched from walking and biking.
France is somewhat of a forerunner in this field, with many cities having already tried the experiment over the last 15 years, sometimes going back to paid travel afterwards. Currently, the largest city offering free transport is Dunkirk in northern France, but the country's largest cities, starting with Paris, are also considering it. On a national scale, only Luxembourg offers free public transport, a program it introduced in 2020.