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By Bracken Jelier

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to Plymouth of late. My recent article ‘Why Branding Plymouth ‘Britain’s Ocean City Makes’ Perfect Sense’ was widely shared and engaged with and it started me down a train of thought about what the city, and businesses within it, could do to make the most of the PR opportunities that #Mayflower2020 will bring.

Now, I’m not the world’s expert on marketing a whole city, but for the last 25 years I have been a Plymothian – and combine that with my love of media, content, PR and the digital sphere it makes me somewhat invested in the next steps.

Nothing frustrates me more when I hear outdated views of our city – or to hear that people have bypassed us to head somewhere else because they didn’t think there was anything to see. So I started to think of some less obvious ways to encourage them – and if 2020 is the hook to attract all those visitors, how do we want to use that to grab the international headlines in less obvious ways. How about Britain’s Ocean city becoming Britain’s first Fare Free City…?

Attracting visitors is a key goal for everyone, every business, involved in 2020 and Destination Plymouth is working with eleven UK towns and cities linked to the Mayflower story to create a Mayflower Trail, encouraging visitors from the US to explore the UK and boosting tourism outside of London. Imagine if, at the centre of it all, was the announcement of free travel in Plymouth?

In the Plymouth Herald towards the end of last year, Deputy leader of Plymouth City Council, Pete Smith, said: “Mayflower 400 offers amazing opportunities for Plymouth, which played an important role in the original journey nearly 400 years ago….the commemorations will have a positive impact on the city, attracting more visitors and giving every local person the chance to get involved.”

Just think of the benefits of free travel! Most people drive because it makes financial sense compared with the high cost of rail fares. A switch to trains and buses will immediately improve the environment. Long term, wouldn’t it be wonderful to see car commuters abandoning their vehicles altogether, reducing congestion? We could focus on doing more to the cycling provision too – handing back the streets to pedestrians and cyclists. Plymouth could be a shining beacon of sustainable transport.

Plymouth’s Mayflower 400 programme for 2020 will include performances from top music artists, a field gun festival and daily flypasts, musical theatre performances, spectacular new city-wide events, arts and culture, sport and volunteering. If we granted everyone a ‘Mayflower Pass’…just imagine.

But – I hear you ask – what about viability? Well, free public transit, once something that seemed a little ‘radical’ has seen a frenzy of popularity across Europe in the last 12 months. Two dozen French cities have gone fare free with one of the most recent being Dunkirk that the Guardian reported, with a population of roughly 200,000, is the largest city to do so.

Some routes have seen an 85% increase in passenger numbers including both visitors and residents. Fares used to cover 10% (€47 million) of Dunkirk’s running costs for its bus fleet, so to make up the shortfall the town has raised its public transport tax which every company with at least 11 employees must pay. Mayor, Patrice Vergriete, told the Guardian the project is a huge success, with the city expanding its bus fleet from 100 vehicles to 140. “You can’t put a price on mobility and social justice,” he said. 

Dunkirk’s system was inspired by Tallinn, Estonia, the first European capital to provide fare-free service on buses, trams, and trolleys to registered residents. Locals pay €2 for a “green card” that gives them unlimited free trips. It started in 2013 and, as in 2016 they claimed it was turning a €20 million-a-year profit.

Then earlier this year, five cities in Germany opted to try free public transit, although they’ve since decided to dramatically reduce fares rather than waive them entirely.

In Geneva tourists are entitled to a free Public Transport Card as they pay a small charge in addition to the cost of their accommodation. That includes anyone staying in hotels, youth hostels or at a campsite. It enables visitors to use the whole public transportation system of Geneva for the length of their stay for free, including buses, trains, and water taxis.

So could any of these ideas work in Plymouth? I can’t wait to hear what people think….