The Hot Topic: Luxembourg’s free public transport and what it means for the environment
In Luxembourg, citizens and visitors can now travel completely ticketless on any bus, train, or tram, except for the first class cabins. It is a move that will be observed closely by the rest of the world, as mobility continues to be one of the biggest challenges in the twenty-first century.
Some facts about Luxembourg for the many people who do not even know of its existence: it is one of the tiniest countries in the world, bordered by Belgium, France, and Germany. The three official languages are French, German, and Luxembourgish. With a population of a little more than half a million people, it is one of the least populated countries but has one of the highest population growth rates in Europe. It is also the country of the birth of the European Union - Schengen is a city in Luxembourg where the Schengen Agreement was signed. Luxembourg just made history again by implementing a law that was passed in 2018 by its government; from 1 March 2020, they just made all of their public transport free.
Citizens and visitors can now travel completely ticketless on any bus, train, or tram, except for the first-class cabins. It is a move that will be observed closely by the rest of the world, as mobility continues to be one of the biggest challenges in the twenty-first century. But first, let’s be honest: Luxembourg is no struggling economy in need of subsidies. It has one of the highest per capita GDP in the world: it’s an advanced and rich economy. So why is public transport being made free there?
Luxembourg also has more cars than any other country in the European Union. Considering its position between France, Belgium, and Germany, Luxembourg gets around 220,000 more people every weekday as people from these countries commute to it for work. The traffic situation became increasingly congested and complex in the little nation, and so did their emissions; making public transport free could be a move that kills two birds with one stone, especially considering that fare revenue constitutes barely eight per cent of Luxembourg’s public transportation costs, as reported in The Independent.
If the desired effect is achieved, public transportation replacing private vehicles makes a huge environmental dent. A BBC piece reports that a study suggests that emissions from urban transportation could be cut by more than half by 2050, and economies save in excess of US $100 trillion. And if the simple usage of public transport reduces emissions, and free public transport increases ridership and encourages people to switch from cars, then public transport should be made free. As reported in the Huffington Post for example, ‘In the United States, according to federal government data, transportation is responsible for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, with passenger cars and light trucks emitting 59% of that. Putting a dent in those figures will require public transit to become more attractive than driving, and given the cost of fueling, parking and maintaining an automobile, the word “free” could have a certain appeal.’
But questions are being raised: in a place like Luxembourg, is it the cost that is discouraging people from using public transport? Luxembourg anyway has one of the cheapest public transportation in all of the European Union, and yet, only one in five people in the country use it. In RTL Today, François Bausch, Minister for Mobility and Transport explains that “Free public transport is the cherry on top of a cake representing a complete mobility strategy, but the cake itself must be baked. Naturally, the cake is investing in infrastructure.” He stresses on the importance of improving punctuality and infrastructure.
The decision of the consumer to use public transport would then not only be based on the fact that it’s a socially and environmentally better thing to do, but that it’s equally convenient. Vegan meat would truly start to work if it is not just equally priced and available, but also as equally tasty as other meat.
Luxembourg is not the only place in the world with free public transport. There are around 100 cities in the world with free public transport. About 23 French towns have free public transport, the biggest one being Dunkirk, one of the largest free bus systems in the world. Estonia’s capital Tallin has had free public transport for its residents since 2012. Kansas City in the US made its public transport free as well, one of the biggest American cities to do so. Closer home, the Kejriwal government last year in Delhi made public buses free for women to use: if women want, they can pay for it or otherwise they will be provided with a pink slip that allows them to travel for free. Plans were also made to make the metro free for women, but they haven’t materialised yet. Aside from the social impact, these policy-level changes can have a significant environmental impact, as long as investments in infrastructure are made as well.
2020 is the year that the Paris Agreement comes into effect, and the next decade could make or break us; either countries across the world step up and adopt policies that are in favour of the environment or risk the wrath of mother nature. Luxembourg’s experiment is the first of many that people across the world will be keeping a close eye on, and hopefully, seek to replicate.