Geneva says "no" to free public transport

Tram passengers will get no free ride in Geneva Keystone

Voters in canton Geneva have turned down an initiative to allow people to travel on local trams and buses for free.

This content was published on February 24, 2008

The controversial proposal, which was supported by leftwing groups, unions and an association for retired people, was rejected by 67 per cent of Geneva voters on Sunday.

Geneva senator Robert Cramer told journalists he was both pleased and relieved by the result.

"If it had been accepted, it would have led to a considerable reduction in the quality of the Geneva public transport system," the Green Party politician commented.

Ahead of the vote, political opponents from most parties had roundly attacked the proposal.

"The idea might indeed be attractive to a wide range of people, from those who love its slightly 'anarchic' appeal to those who pay too much tax," Cramer told journalists in January.

But a totally free system would not be possible, and taxpayers would be asked to stump up the necessary funds, declared the opponents.

Currently, 55 per cent of the cost of the Geneva network - or SFr155 million ($143 million) - is subsidised by the state. The remaining 45 per cent comes from ticket sales, passes and fines. A "yes" vote would have cost taxpayers SFr167 million annually, they argued.

Green social solution

Supporters of the initiative, launched in 2005, said a free service was an environmental and social solution that would help ease congestion in the canton and develop individual mobility, encouraging 20-30 per cent more car-users to take the bus and tram.

They said current ticket prices were "exorbitant" and had a prohibitive effect on poor people, and claimed the canton had sufficient funds to finance a free system without additional income. They pointed to successful schemes in other towns and cities in the world, notably in France and Belgium.

Geneva residents are estimated to make almost half their journeys by car, motorbike or scooter, and the number of vehicles on Geneva's roads – expected to rise by 43 per cent by 2020 – is a frequent local complaint.

Jerôme Béguin, one of the people behind the initiative, told swissinfo that despite losing the vote, he considered the result was not that bad.

"Some 46,000 people voted in favour of the initiative," he noted. "It was fought in difficult conditions, as the opponents had raised fears about the network being dismantled and possible tax increases. It is a new idea and mentalities need time to change."

Another way out

Antonio Hodgers, president of Geneva's Green Party, said that while supporting greater use of public transport and the reduction of city centre traffic, he was not able to back free public transport.

"We agreed with what was behind the initiative but we didn't support the manner in which it was proposed," he explained. "The initiative didn't propose any financing. Where was the SFr160 million to come from? The health or education budgets?"

"I honestly don't think a free public transport system would work in Geneva, as the existing free networks are one tenth the size of ours," he said.

Yet Hodgers recognised the urgent need to ease Geneva's traffic problems.

"We have to reinforce the offer with more trams and buses and somehow limit car access to the centre of town. If you go to Basel, Zurich or Bern, there are far fewer vehicles in the centre," he said.

His party was going to argue for "green areas" in the city centre where only low-emission vehicles with a special permit could go, as well as more low-speed zones and safe cycle paths.

"Free public transport only has a very limited impact on the number of cars," he said.

But Béguin remains hopeful that one day Geneva will have a more "socially and environmentally" coherent public transport network.

On January 10, the initiative supporters launched a second proposal for a green financing system by means of a SFr19 tax on every air ticket sold from Geneva airport and higher cantonal taxes on environmentally unfriendly vehicles.

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva


Several mid-size European cities and small towns around the world have introduced free bus networks. These include: Châteauroux and Compiègne in France; Hasselt in Belgium; and Chapel Hill in North Carolina and Commerce in California in the United States. French cities Nantes, Montpellier and Toulouse are also considering the idea.

Local free shuttles or inner-city loops using buses or trams are far more common than city-wide systems.

In Switzerland almost half of all journeys in the Lausanne-Morges and Geneva-Nyon regions are made using cars, motorbikes or scooters (40% in Zurich, 36% in Bern and 34% in Basel), according to the Federal Transport Office.

The Transport Office states that there will be a 20-40% increase in road traffic between Geneva and Lausanne by 2030.

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Cantonal votes - Geneva

After cantons Ticino, Solothurn, Graubünden, Appenzell Outer Rhodes and Valais, Geneva voters agreed on Sunday (79% in favour) to ban smoking from bars and restaurants and in administrative offices in Geneva.

Voters also approved an initiative to ban dangerous dogs. Fighting dogs will be forbidden altogether, and owners of dogs weighing more than 25kg will need a permit to take them for a walk in public places.

They also voted overwhelmingly to set up a constituent assembly which will revise Geneva's 160-year-old cantonal constitution.

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