François Bausch of the Green party gives the tram a thumbs up during a press event, 4 June 2018. Photo credit: Matic Zorman
Whoever you credit it to, Luxembourg took huge strides in establishing a low-carbon transport infrastructure during the last government’s term.
From the tram, to new train stations and electric buses, it felt like a lot happened in the last five years when déi Gréng’s François Bausch served as sustainable development minister.
But, with NO2 emission levels still worryingly high in certain areas, over half the population yet to use the tram and frankly crazy car ownership rates, it’s not enough. Luxembourg often looks to France for policy inspiration and perhaps the new government will turn its attention to Dunkirk, which for the past month has been the biggest European city to offer free public transport. In that time, not only has bus use risen (by up to 85% in some areas) but people are becoming friendlier, if an article in The Guardian is anything to go by.
The subject of free public transport has been raised several times in Luxembourg, featuring most recently in a public petition and on the DP’s list of election promises. At the pre-election Paperjam debate held on 19 September, François Bausch called the pledge “fake” and further warned if thousands of people were added to the passenger flow, “they would be sitting on the roof of trains like in India.”
While the statement is hardly reassuring, showing even the minister was realistic about the limitations of our public transport infrastructure, it should also be noted Bausch puts a lot of stock in cycle use and the roll-out of electric bikes.
Transport is already free, for some
Capacity issues aside and assuming Luxembourg subsidised public transport costs say through a congestion tax on private cars, I would be curious to give it a try.
But, beyond serving as a great headline grabber for the Luxembourg nation branding file, I’m not convinced it alone would work.
For one, students have already had free public transport since 1 August 2017. Secondly, for several years, thousands of people in Luxembourg have benefited from free or heavily subsidised public transport, and no, I’m not referring to the fare dodgers, but holders of season ticket mKaart.
The last flag is petition 970 calling for public transport to be free launched in spring 2018. It fell well short of the 4,500-signature threshold required to trigger a debate, garnering just 663 signatures. It begs the question; does anyone really want free public transport in Luxembourg?
In Dunkirk some of the travellers The Guardian interviewed were happy to put aside the money they would spend on public transport for other things. The savings could help passengers on low incomes in Luxembourg, where around 16% of the population is at risk of poverty.
For the remainder, one might argue they spend more in a single visit to the cinema than the €20-€50 fee for a monthly pass. And when a single ticket costs the same as a coffee, what would dropping the charge change?
I suspect we may have already reached peak public transport use through freebies and subsidies. Free is not the issue. When people shun public transport, they do so for varying reason--because public transport doesn’t run late enough, because of professional and personal needs, but mostly because they can afford to pay costly parking fees and put up with the discomfort of traffic jams.
The challenge for the next government will be to build on what has been started and get the die-hard private car users on board. It needs to find creative commuter solutions that make people’s lives easier not harder than using a private car. Perhaps free public transport will be one of several solutions but, I'm not convinced free travel alone is enough to convince this group.