Mar 1 Written By Priscille Biehlmann in Are We Europe – March 2020
Luxembourg becomes the first country in the world to pioneer free public transport as part of a social-ecological transition. Will it be enough?
Cars are a problem for cities.
They clog up centres, they pollute the air, they are noisy, and they take up space—lots of space. The problem is particularly bad in Luxembourg, which has some of the worst traffic congestion in Europe. “During the mornings and late afternoons, the traffic is so bad that there is no point in even leaving the house,” says Joakim Rinne, 23, a Luxembourg native.
“As of March 1st, all buses, trams, and trains in Luxembourg will be officially free of charge.”
But the country has just taken a big step to solve this problem. As of March 1st, all buses, trams, and trains in Luxembourg will be officially free of charge. The aim is to incentivise people to use their cars less often, in favour of greener public transport options—no small task in a country that has the highest rate of cars per capita in the EU. The money to fund this will come from cutting current subsidies that allow people to deduct work-related travel expenses from their tax bill each year.
Granted, the whole country is about the size of greater Paris, with 20 times less people. But the decision will put Luxembourg on the map as the first country in Europe—and in the world—to make its entire public transit system free of charge.
“I think it’s a big step for the country in terms of being able to promote itself as the ‘free public transport’ country of Europe,” says Rinne, who regularly relies on the country’s buses and trains.
“The government hopes the policy will encourage greener transport, reduce congestion, and improve public health.”
Apart from just good publicity, the government hopes the policy will encourage greener transport, reduce congestion, and improve public health. But it’s also a matter of social equality, as transportation costs tend to be a big burden for people with low wages.
Wojciech Kębłowski, a post-doctoral researcher in transportation geography at Vrije Universiteit Brussels, says the data supports this: “What’s very clear is that free public transit is a social policy. In places where we have reliable data in terms of who uses public transportation when it is made free, we see very clearly that there is a big increase of usage among under-privileged groups, like the unemployed, pensioners, and people with very low incomes.”
“What is also very clear is that this is a policy for electoral competition,” he says. Free public transit is popular. It can win votes, and politicians are listening. But while free public transport has many supporters, among transport experts there is also a dose of healthy scepticism. For instance, Tim Schwanen, the Director of the Transport Studies Unit at the University of Oxford, questions whether it is really the best way to invest limited resources.
“I think it depends on what you want to achieve,” Schwanen explains. “The question is, does this policy cater to the needs of the people who need it most, or does it serve the needs of people who are already relatively well off?”
“For example, in many cities, public transport is often not of the same quality in poor areas as in middle class and upper class areas. City centres often have quite good public transport connections, while peripheral housing estates do not have good connections.” So, if the goal is to balance out social and economic inequalities at least, it may be more important in the long run to make sure poorer areas are actually connected. Still, Schwanen acknowledges that the policy is probably a good one—though not necessarily for the reasons you might think.
“What free public transport can achieve is that it makes it something that people start to think about in much more positive terms,” Schwanen says. “And that may mean that policy makers are more willing to invest into the system. Because let’s face it, this is a very political project. Transportation will always be a political project.”
Private cars in public spaces
Today there are 73 cities in Europe that offer free public transit. Most of these are in small cities that have less than 50,000 inhabitants. But the list also includes Dunkirk, in northern France, which has over 200,000 inhabitants, and Lubin, in Poland, which has over 300,000 inhabitants. The most notable case is in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, which has almost half a million inhabitants and has guaranteed free public transit for city residents since 2013. While fare-free systems are popping up in new places every year, cities across Europe also are experimenting with other ways to rethink how they move.
Ponteverda, in northwest Spain, made headlines 20 years when it decided to ban cars from its city in 1999. It has since become a model for mid-sized cities looking to pedestrianize their roads, and was awarded a UN Habitat award for Best Practices for Cities in 2014. Many cities are also increasingly investing in developing better cycling infrastructure, and big capitals like Paris and Brussels have begun making ‘car-free days’ a regular event.
The key may lie in taking space away from the car, and allocating it to greener and more communal modes of transit. But as most cities have spent the better part of last century designing their public spaces around the use of private cars, this will require some fundamental changes to urban planning.
“We would need a complete change of political priorities,” says Kębłowski. “A lot of the roads and key boulevards that are now occupied by cars would have to be transformed into public transport corridors.” As the climate crisis barrels ahead, cities—including some very large ones—are starting to think about this and other green transport initiatives with increasing interest.
The mayor of Paris recently commissioned a study that looked into the possibility of setting up a fare-free transport model in the city, though it concluded that it would not be feasible, at least for now. The reason? The study found that if it eliminated fares, there would be a much higher usage of public transit—which, after all, is the goal. But this would in turn mean the city would need to invest heavily in improving and expanding its current infrastructure in order to accommodate the increased usership, for instance by building new metro lines and developing more bus routes—a much bigger project which the city does not currently have the political will to take on.
Free fares may not be the silver bullet of the transportation revolution. But there is reason to think they could play an important part in a larger act. “I think free public transit can be part of a very broad social-ecological transition. We need to do many things to fight climate change and inequality—and one of the things we can do on the municipal level is guaranteeing free public transit,” says Kębłowski.