Luxembourg’s 640,000 residents enjoy the world’s highest per capita income of any independent state, which comes with the highest vehicle density in Europe (696 cars per 1,000 people as of 2020). Almost nine out of ten Luxembourgish households have a car; one in ten families have three or more.
To curb its driving addiction, the country is trying an ambitious idea: On 29 February 2020, it became the first nation in the world to make all public transport entirely free at the point of use. Free transport programmes have emerged in all kinds of cities and countries over the years as a means of addressing rising energy costs or traffic. Rome experimented with free buses in 1971; Austin, Texas, tried it in 1989 and 1990; Kansas City’s bus and streetcar systems have been fare-less since 2020. One of the longest-running efforts has been in Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, which has had free public transport for residents since 2013, while Estonians also pay no fares for rural bus journeys. Perhaps the largest variation on the model to date, however, has been in Germany, where for the three months of summer 2022, the state is offering travel passes that are valid on all urban and regional services (but not faster intercity trains) for the close-to-token cost of €9 per month.
However, there is little evidence as yet that such programmes have reduced the number of cars on the road. In May 2022, congestion on Luxembourg’s roads was — depending on the location — largely equivalent to or higher than the levels in May 2019, before the free public transport policy was introduced. The reason for this, studies have shown, is that making transport free does not in itself tempt people away from their cars. While removing charges may provide an incentive, it will not compensate for other possible disadvantages, such as overcrowded, delayed or cancelled trains — not uncommon in Luxembourg before the pandemic — or the challenges faced by public transport in competing with the convenience of door-to-door travel offered by private vehicles. 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.
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. Part of the challenge is that, even for those in close proximity to Luxembourg City, public transport coverage is not sufficient for many residents’ needs; travelling exclusively via bus or train is an even bigger challenge outside the city centre.
The city is trying to make public transport a more attractive option than the car. It has embarked on a series of service improvements, including a tramway in Luxembourg City that opened in 2017, with a new extension launching this September and four lines set to be added by 2030. Meanwhile, as part of the country’s mobility plan for 2035, Luxembourg will embark on 14 major rail improvements and redesign urban street plans while also introducing bus rapid transit and carpooling lanes on main roads.
From this example, it is clear that any city or region considering full public transport subsidies should be upfront about what such policies can and cannot deliver. Merely eliminating tickets will not be sufficient as a stand-alone policy for greater sustainability and social equity; it needs to be complemented by other efforts, such as more stringent restrictions on car use or more generous housing benefits that allow more people who work in the area to live nearby.
Original article published by Bloomberg on 7 July 2022.
- Publication date
- 19 July 2022
- Policy and research