Head-to-head: Yes, public transport should be free

Free public transport sounds ideal, but would it actually tempt drivers out of their cars? François Bausch, Mobility and Public Works Minister of Luxembourg, makes the argument for it
Tram in Luxembourg city centre | Photo: Alamy

By François Bausch

François Bausch is Mobility and Public Works Minister of Luxembourg

02 Nov 2022

On 29 February 2020, Luxembourg became the first country in the world to offer free public transport throughout its national territory for all modes. This measure benefits all users, whether they are residents, cross-border workers or visitors.

The Luxembourg government took this decision as part of its overall strategy for a multimodal revolution. It had a positive impact, not only on the number of passengers but also on the narrative around public transport. Using a bus, a tram or a train is now as spontaneous as using a private car.

While it was free public transport that attracted worldwide attention, this measure has to be understood as being only the icing on the cake. The cake itself has got to be a high-quality multimodal offer that is at least as attractive as the private car for most daily trips. Baking the “quality cake” means fundamentally redesigning mobility options in general, and in particular the use of public space.

While it was free public transport that attracted worldwide attention, this measure has to be understood as being only the icing on the cake

As Luxembourg is projected to face a 40 per cent increase in mobility demand from 2017 to 2035, no local politicians wish, or could even imagine, a 40 per cent increase in car traffic throughout their towns. Hence, since 2014, Luxembourg has invested at least as much money in public transport and cycling infrastructure as in classic road infrastructure for individual car traffic. And we are seeing the results: whenever we put in place a quality transport alternative, such as a tram line with multimodal hubs and reliable service, a bicycle bridge creating a shortcut between urban neighbourhoods, or a pleasant pedestrian area, people use them en masse.

The national mobility plan for 2035 lays out the multimodal mobility network at the national level as well as in Luxembourg’s urban centres. It shows which infrastructure and public transport options will need to be in place by 2035 for these additional 40 per cent of trips to be accommodated.

As for the attractive pricing of public transport, i.e. the icing on the quality cake, the key is not that it be free of charge. The key is that the fare structure be as simple and intuitive as possible for users, especially new ones, to understand. Making the use of public transport entirely free is of course the ultimate step.

It has to be understood that Luxembourg was able to take this step from a starting point that was undoubtedly much more favourable than that of most other jurisdictions. First, even before 29 February 2020, public transport had already been subsidised by 90 per cent. Secondly, the country’s modest territorial scope means that in terms of mobility, it essentially functions as a single metropolitan area.

As the overwhelming success of Germany’s experiment with a nationwide, simple and affordable €9 ticket has shown, making the use of public transport free of charge is not a conditio sine qua non. The key is that it be as intuitive and straightforward to take a bus anywhere in the country as it is to fuel up a car anywhere in the country.

Hence, if other countries or metropolitan areas seek to learn from the Luxembourg experience, the recommendation would be twofold. First, bake the quality cake: develop and communicate a coherent and multimodal plan for your territory. Only then comes the icing: drastically simplify public transport fare structures, aiming for one single fare for all long-distance trips and another single fare for trips within all metropolitan areas.