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A Small Nation in Europe Tries a Big Idea: Free Public Transit

Since 2020, Luxembourgers have been able to travel the entire country on trains and buses without buying the ticket. Is the policy profitable?

On occasion, walking down the street in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg feels like strolling through an architectural depiction since it is so orderly and pastoral.

Honey-colored sandstone structures teeter strangely on the edge of ravines along the tidy streets of Luxembourg City, the tiny state’s capital, and surrounding new office complexes crammed with financial services companies. When taking a train into the countryside, you’ll see prosperous-looking settlements flitting between fields of ripening corn and castle-topped valleys.

The nearly 640,000 people of Luxembourg have the greatest per capita income of any independent state in the world (better even than tinier Monaco and Liechtenstein). But even in this affluent region of Europe, there are certain intractable issues. Cars are one among them.

With 696 automobiles per 1,000 people as of 2020, Luxembourg has the highest vehicle density on the continent, surpassing all other countries in the European Union. In Luxembourg, over nine out of ten homes own a car, and one in ten households have three or more cars. Luxembourg has the lowest fuel prices in the EU and the lowest gas prices in Western Europe because to low tariffs and taxes. Dealerships for Ferrari and Maserati can be found in tiny communities.

While Luxembourg City, attractiveness aside, is a checkerboard of parking lots, traffic frequently moves at a crawl. Police are pleading with people not to travel to inland lake beaches this summer because they are congested with illegally parked vehicles. By 2030, Luxembourg’s population will be above 690,000, putting a strain on the country’s transportation system.

This tiny nation is attempting an ambitious notion to reduce its dependence on driving: It made all public transit completely free at the point of use on February 29, 2020, making it the first country in the world to do so. Since then, no one has paid to travel a bus, tram, or train inside the borders of Luxembourg, with the exception of (not particularly popular) first-class tickets.

It could appear that only a small, wealthy nation like Luxembourg could make the idea of charging riders nothing conceivable. The trial will raise the government’s annual transportation costs by 41 million euros ($43.4 million), in addition to any existing subsidies.

But over time, free transit initiatives have appeared in a variety of cities and nations as a response to issues like rising energy costs or traffic. Rome tested fare-free buses in 1971; Austin, Texas, did the same in 1989 and 1990; Kansas City’s bus and streetcar systems have been fare-free since 2020; and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has committed to “Free the T” throughout the Massachusetts city, beginning with a trio of fare-free bus routes.

One of the longest-running programs is in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, where inhabitants have had free public transportation since 2013. Estonians also don’t pay for trips on rural buses. Both the city of Frdek-Mstek in the Czech Republic and Dunkirk, France, have recently implemented ticketless transit.

The largest deviation from the model to date, though, may have occurred in Germany, where for the three months of the summer of 2022, the state is offering travel passes for the roughly token price of 9 euros per month that are valid on all urban and regional services (but not faster intercity trains).

It’s simple to understand why governments looking for methods to reduce carbon emissions and help citizens affected by high gas prices would find these programs appealing.

Such strategies might help shift people out of private automobiles in places of Europe where very dependable train and bus services (and hefty subsidies to support them) are the norm. They take away obstacles to mobility for less fortunate residents and, in a world working to reduce carbon emissions, they can also serve as a reminder to voters that a world with fewer emissions can also offer conveniences and benefits, not simply trade-offs.

However, whether free travel is effective will depend on how you define “working.” Abandoning tickets has undoubtedly made the system more seamless for riders. Nowadays, getting off a bus and onto a tram without thinking about whether or where to acquire a new ticket is fairly simple.

The sense of freedom is real: One owner of a cafe just a few minutes from Luxembourg City’s central station says that young people — and his teenage son in particular — are using the fare-less policy to go on jaunts around the country and discover it in ways that wouldn’t previously have been possible (a boon in a country where there isn’t a huge amount for young people to do).

Then again, paying fares was never a major burden for him — so lax were ticket-takers on buses and trams that he admits he stopped paying decades ago. 

For other riders, though, the cost savings are more meaningful. “This policy is saving me close to 500 euros a year” says Max, a 26-year old special needs teacher who works in Luxembourg City but lives in France.

Sitting on a double-decker train rattling towards the French border city of Thionville, he acknowledges that, for him at least, the policy offered both financial and time advantages over driving. 

It’s not just the cost that’s the issue, he says. If I drive home, there are so many jams and bottlenecks on the road towards the border it can take 60 to 75 minutes to get home. On the train I can make it in half that.

Although most Luxembourgers support the free transit policy, there is currently little proof that it has decreased the number of cars on the road. Depending on the location, traffic congestion on Luxembourg’s roadways in May 2022 was essentially comparable to or higher than levels in May 2019, before to the implementation of the free public transit policy.

Studies have demonstrated that this is because making transit free does not in itself encourage people to give up their automobiles. While eliminating costs might serve as a motivator, it won’t make up for other potential drawbacks like the inability to compete with door-to-door travel convenience or packed, delayed, or canceled trains—all of which were typical in Luxembourg before to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, data from elsewhere suggests that the most enthusiastic adopters of free travel policies tend to be people who would have otherwise walked or cycled.

To wean people off unsustainable levels of car dependency, you have to make driving more costly and difficult — something that Luxembourg’s center-left coalition government has so far been wary of doing. While fuel taxes were brought closer to standard European levels in 2021, some of these increases were temporarily put on hold in May 2022 as part of a government “solidarity package” to help citizens weather the energy crisis brought on by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, under current projections the number of cars on the road in Luxembourg is, according to the 2035 Mobility Plan, set to increase by 6% by 2035, due to population growth. 

Francois Bausch, a member of the Green Party and the Luxembourg’s Minister for Mobility and Public Works, believes that the government’s strategy is the best course of action for the time being.

It’s very important not to place too many burdens on drivers if there aren’t already very strong alternative ways to travel in place beforehand, he said. We would not want to create the kind of dissatisfaction that created the Yellow Vest protests they have had in France.

Getting about solely by bus or train outside of the city center is significantly more difficult, and even for those living near to Luxembourg City, public transit coverage is insufficient for many people’ needs.

According to Bausch, “the challenge for modal shift is very simple: Make the other modes more attractive than the car,” in an interview from 2021. To that goal, the nation has started a series of enhancements to its public transportation system, including a tramway in Luxembourg City that debuted in 2017 and will get four new lines by 2030.

As part of the nation’s mobility strategy for 2035, Luxembourg will make 14 significant rail improvements, remodel urban street layouts, implement bus rapid transit, and create carpool lanes on major roadways.

In addition to reducing traffic and pollution, Bausch claims that by lowering transit rates in Luxembourg, the country is addressing a social equity issue:

The policy establishes a principle that people’s access to transport should not be restricted by their income

However, some critics have noted that even providing free transit, a significant obstacle to economic progress still remains: housing affordability.

The popularity of car ownership is not the only reason why the roads in Luxembourg are congested: The majority of the great duchy’s workforce lives outside of its borders. International commuters make up 46% of Luxembourg’s employment. 110,000 of them originate in France, and another 50,000 each are from Germany and Belgium.

Due to the exorbitant expense of housing, many people only live across the border. In the cities of southern Luxembourg, the average rent in 2021 was little over 1,200 euros ($1,354). Rents in border towns like Arlon, Belgium, typically cost around 700 euros.

The result: a daily mass exodus in and out of the country that clogs roads and packs rush hour trains across the border, leaving Luxembourg City notably quieter when work hours are over. This is arguably the greatest divide in the country — between those who can afford to live inside the borders and those who can’t. Abolishing fares is thus seen by some a modest transportation subsidy for those who have been obliged by high living costs to locate themselves outside Luxembourg.

But Constance Carr, an urban geographer at the University of Luxembourg, suggests that the no-ticket policy might nonetheless leave these people at a disadvantage: Now that they don’t pay directly into the system, they can’t complain about poor service.

Addressing the housing issue would be a greater social equity objective, if that is what the free public transit policy is actually trying to do. Everybody knows housing is too expensive and that it should be addressed, but nobody does, so the process starts over again like a merry-go-round. But while housing is a perennial political debate here, free public transit is not — no one was actually asking for this policy. It just arrived without much at all in the way of public discussion.

Given these arguments, which claim that free transit hasn’t yet been effective in lowering traffic or reducing inequality, it might seem that other areas shouldn’t think about adopting Luxembourg’s approach. But it’s not always the case. What is apparent is that any city or region thinking about fully subsidizing public transportation should be honest about what these policies can and cannot accomplish. For improved sustainability and social equality, simply getting rid of fines is insufficient; other actions are required, such as stricter car usage regulations or more generous housing assistance programs that enable more people who work in the region to live nearby.

While some riders, like Max, are grateful for the small windfall, he would be much happier if he could completely eliminate his international journey.

I would love to live in Luxembourg — it has a great social system and living standard, especially compared to France right now, where everything is a complete mess, he says. Luxembourg is also where my grandfather is from, so I’ve always had a connection. But with the prices for housing being what they are, I’m not sure that’s ever going to be possible for me.

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