Free Rides: What’s The Point? Part 1

Starting 1 March 2020, anyone using public transport service buses, trams or trains can simply board a vehicle without a ticket. Romain Gamba

Starting 1 March 2020, anyone using public transport service buses, trams or trains can simply board a vehicle without a ticket. Romain Gamba

Users of the grand duchy’s public transport networks, apart from 1st class passengers, will be able to travel free of charge starting in March 2020. The policy, which had cross-party support in Luxembourg and garnered international headlines, seems like a no-brainer, yet some are sceptical. 

Here's a look at the thinking behind the initiative and why some observers are sceptical of the scheme’s aims.

How did we get here?

The Luxembourg government’s much-heralded free public transport scheme comes online on 1 March 2020. The idea to provide free public transport was first realistically mooted by the young socialists prior to the July 2018 national congress meeting of the LSAP to sign off its manifesto for that October’s parliamentary elections. Before then, it had been a pipe dream of Déi Lénk that as recently as February 2016 was dismissed by mobility minister François Bausch, who answered a parliamentary question from David Wagner by saying that he didn’t think that reducing the price of travel, or doing away with fares altogether, would increase public transport use. 

But the LSAP at the time was eager to listen to its youth wing, especially as it had been accused of failing to attract younger voters during local elections just a year prior, where it suffered a drop in the vote of close to 5%. So, the motion to include free public transport as a policy goal was included in the manifesto. Other parties across the board, apart from the CSV, also included free-of-charge transport as a priority in the mobility package of their election programme. The DP and ADR both said offering free use was a way of encouraging more people to take public transport. Déi Gréng and Déi Lénk both supported the idea but did not necessarily see it as a magic solution to the country’s mobility problems. 

“Our priority was on investment,” Bausch told Delano in an interview in November. “We said we could imagine introducing free public transport in the medium term, but that first the quality of the service being offered had to improve.” During coalition discussions with the DP and LSAP, Déi Gréng insisted that the government programme would emphasise that the scheme was promoted as a social measure. “That was the compromise we negotiated.” The scheme was included in the government’s five-year policy programme published in December 2018. Then, on 21 January, Bausch announced the start date of the scheme for 1 March, 2020. That hailed another flurry of international headlines. And there does seem to be a growing international movement in favour of free or significantly subsidised public transport as a solution to many ills. In a report published in Forbes in September, Enrique Dans said that the growth in interest in public transport was “clearly a trend in reinterpreting the idea of cities as a service”.

How does it work?

Starting 1 March 2020, anyone using public transport service buses, trams or trains can simply board a vehicle without a ticket. The only passengers required to show a ticket or pass will be those travelling in first class on CFL trains. Initially, the scheme was also set to exclude users of the “Adapto” call-a-bus service for persons with reduced mobility. But public outcry and a petition that gathered more than the 4,500 signatures required to force a parliamentary debate saw that decision reversed in September.

Transport unions had concerns that the free of charge travel would impact the jobs of ticket inspectors, but both the CFL and the city of Luxembourg have provided assurances that no redundancies will result from the introduction of the free public transport scheme. Indeed, safety will also not be compromised, says CFL communications manager Alessandra Nonnweiler. “Every train will still be manned by a controller, which is not the case in every country.” Staff currently employed to be chiefly ticket inspectors will be trained to be more proactive in orientating clients, she explains. “We are really customer centric, so we want to provide the best possible information for their trip.”

But some unions and other commentators have also argued that the scheme will mean that buses, trams and train carriages become “public spaces”, and that an increase in vandalism is inevitable. There is also concern from some quarters that the homeless might take advantage of the free scheme to spend all day aboard public transport rather than brave the elements.

What will be the impact?

No concrete projection studies have been done on likely changes in traffic flow on public transport when free rides are introduced. CFL, for instance, says it doesn’t like to speculate about the impact the scheme will have on passenger numbers on the train network. But Nonnweiler does say the general feeling at the rail company is that it will make it much easier for people taking the train, especially for short distances. “The step of having to purchase a ticket will have been removed. But let’s be honest, public transport in Luxembourg doesn’t cost a fortune. Many people already have it for free or at preferential tariffs. So, we are not expecting a significantly higher increase in use.” 

The government has studied the impact that free public transport has had in other cities, notably in Tallinn and some French metropolitan areas, says Bausch. “Nowhere did passenger numbers on buses or trains increase by more than 30% as a result of there being no charge.” Brian Field, an urban planner, economist and public policy analyst who worked at the European Investment Bank, has wide experience in public transport policy. He dismisses the idea that the scheme will increase passenger numbers. “All of the case studies and all of the experience tell us that it achieves very, very little in terms of getting people out of their cars and onto buses and the like. Because as economists we can measure the cost elasticity …. you actually have to pay people money to use public transport to increase the ridership.”

In the short term, too, the quality of public transport is putting people off changing their habits. “Capacity right now has almost been reached,” says Nonnweiler. Over the last 15 years, CFL has already experienced an increase in passenger numbers of 70%--unprecedented in Europe. But she acknowledges that currently passengers are having their patience tested by delays and cancellations while current work on improvements is being carried out. “Until 2024, we will have to temporarily close some lines, replacing services with buses, which will be done where possible during the summer or Easter holidays to minimise disruption,” she explains. Bausch too admits that “there are still too many delays because of all the works being undertaken”.

Laure Simon, board member of the Mouvement Écologique, perhaps surprisingly says that free public transport was never a policy goal of the environmental lobby group. “Of course, it will be better for the country for air quality if more people use public transportation,” she admits. But, like others, she recognises that during rush hours, the public transport system is currently almost at capacity. “So where should those people go?” she asks. “And at other times, people are just not interested, too lazy, or they have other things to do. It’s not the price [discouraging] them from taking the bus. Free public transport will not lead to better air condition,” Simon says.

So, if in the short-term free public transport won’t increase passenger numbers significantly--and will consequently not alleviate congestion on the roads--nor have a positive impact on the environment, what is the point?

Well, it seems that Bausch was on the money when he said it was a social measure. A Statec study published in August 2019 bears out the minister’s argument, showing that it will indeed make a significant difference in purchasing power, especially for people with less high incomes. Households in the grand duchy who use public transport as their only means of transport, for instance, will save on average €390 per year, the study found. Households that use both private cars and public transport would save on average €230 per year--a figure is somewhat mitigated by May’s increase in excise tax on fuel. Though Bausch is keen to add the caveat that, as many critics have pointed out, free public transport is not really “free”. “There is always someone who pays,” the minister explains. “In this case, the taxpayer. But because we have a progressive tax system, which makes it more fair than making everyone pay the same by buying a ticket.”

Luxembourg’s 200,000 or so cross-border workers will also benefit from the scheme if they use public transport. An announcement at the beginning of December revealed that the cost of annual and monthly subscriptions will decrease significantly, with the price of Zone 1 passes falling by over half, and Zone 2 passes costing more than 35% less.

But Brian Field reckons that the “social service” argument is invalid. “It’s a social service to provide transport for the elderly, for people who are infirmed, for children to go to school, for people who can’t afford to get to work,” he says. “You know, these are selected policies. Providing universal free public transport, there’s an opportunity cost. The cost of providing that is at the expense of using that money for something else.”

Part two to follow on 14 January.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Delano magazine