Planning free transport in the small nation is seen not just as a social measure but as an environmental strategy,
Luxembourg’s decision to offer free public transport has made headlines across the world, where it’s been celebrated as the first to do so for an entire (though small) country. It’s an ambitious goal, but there are mixed reviews on whether it will work as part of a long-term strategy to reduce emissions and take cars off the road.
For the wealthy European nation, planning free transport nationwide is seen as a social measure as much as it is an environmental strategy, according to deputy prime minister Félix Braz.
He’s part of a new government coalition planning free service by 2020 to help reduce congestion and improve mobility among its 600,000 residents, along with 200,000 routinely crossing the border.
Transport in Luxembourg city is made challenging by high rates of auto use, with 250,000 private automobiles entering the city each day. That makes for 69 percent of all travel by private vehicle, according to the government’s 2017 survey statistics. Luxembourg’s sustainability targets for 2030, compared with 2005, call for 40 percent reductions in greenhouse gases and polluting PM2.5 particulate matter. Nearly two-thirds of the CO2 emissions come from the country’s transport sector.
So it makes sense for Luxembourg to make public transportation more attractive and reach its targets. As with every nation, they’re looking at ways to make the service more reliable, safe and accessible, and part of that strategy considers the social good that free public transport promises.
Yet will it work? For all the praise for the decision that Luxembourg has received in recent weeks, they are by no means the first to try a free-fare public transport (FFPT) model. It’s been tried at the urban scale in dozens of countries, from high profile efforts in Brazil to modest initiatives in Belgium, where free public transport was rolled back in Hasselt in 2014 because of budget constraints.
A September 2017 study published in the journal Transportation looks at the free transport model in Tallinn, Estonia. Researchers interviewed 1,500 households just before the city implemented its 2013 policy and one year after its trams, trolleys and bus system became free. That policy had three goals: to reduce private car use, improve mobility for low-income and unemployed workers, and – a key point – to increase the resident registration that made Tallinn citizens eligible.
The Dutch and Swedish research team found public transport use was up by 14 percent, but that didn’t necessarily mean fewer polluting car trips. In fact, there was a 40 percent jump in use by people who previously were walking, and a decrease among higher-income users likely because of perceptions about crowding, and sharing space with low-income groups who were well served. What paid Tallinn’s bills was an increase in tax revenues based on improved resident registration compliance, and that meant the city’s share of nationally collected taxes went up but other Estonians weren’t happy. For the country as a whole, there are 44 percent more trips by car now than before.
The FFPT model may deliver a social good, as Braz noted, and it may succeed in reducing private car use and the related emissions impacts. Yet there are unintended consequences, and cities considering a free model like Luxembourg will have to contemplate their costs. Some experts suggest there is more to be gained from disincentives for drivers – parking rates, central business district travel premiums – than from simply making public transport free. Thierry Labro, writing for Wort, points to the success of Switzerland, where improved service and low fares already deliver on numbers comparable to Luxembourg’s goals.