The world’s richest country made public transport free: Here’s what happened next

The world’s richest country made public transport free: Here’s what happened next

Luxembourg became the first country in the world to scrap fares on all public transport in 2020. Three years later, residents are filled with praise for the scheme.

The system allows them to “travel easily”, as well as being “very positive for the environment”, some say. For others, the popular system has come to be seen as a “fundamental right”.

Here’s how the free transport scheme works and has been received.

Why did Luxembourg introduce free transport?

The scheme was partially introduced to curb the country’s car problem.

In 2020, Luxembourg had the highest car density in the EU: 696 per 1,000 people versus the average 560. The country suffers bad traffic and high levels of climate-heating emissions as a result.

Residents say that free transport encourages them to leave their cars at home.

“Since it’s free, it’s easier to make a decision quickly, to choose between public transport or private car,” says accountant Edgar Bisenius. “This means that it is very positive for the environment and practical.”

However, some say cars still rule the roads.

“The culture of the car is still very present and it is still quite complicated to attract people from the car to public transport,” says Merlin Gillard, a researcher specialising in public transport.

As the scheme was introduced during the COVID pandemic, measuring its impact has been tricky.

Data from elsewhere suggests the sustainability impact of free transport may be minimal. Since introducing free public transport in 2013, Estonia’s capital Tallinn has seen a rise in car use.

The social impact of cost-saving is thought to be more significant.

Showing appreciation for this element, Luxembourg teacher Ben Dratwicki says, “This is a good initiative, it favours the public sector, it strengthens the public sector.”

In his eyes, the system has become cemented as an entitlement. “Transport is a fundamental right for residents. If you have the right to work, you also have the right to get to work without too many costs.”

How does Luxembourg’s free transport scheme work?

Since 29 February 2020, all forms of public transport – including buses, trains and trams – have been free for residents and tourists alike.

The scheme applies throughout the entire country and passengers need only buy a ticket if they wish to travel first class.

Ticket revenue previously stood at €41 million per year in Luxembourg – a fraction of the more-than €500 million running cost of the country’s entire public transport system. The deficit is made up primarily by higher tax payers.

“It’s a considerable cost, but… it’s paid by all taxpayers,” explains François Bausch, Luxembourg’s Deputy Prime Minister. “There’s more equity there because obviously those who pay little taxes pay nothing or very little in this system. And those who pay more taxes… have a price tag that may be a little bit higher.”

As a result, investment in the country’s transport system has not slowed. The new tram system is regular and reliable, unhindered by traffic. The country has made record investments in improving its rail network.

Is Luxembourg well connected to the rest of Europe?

Luxembourg is well connected to other parts of Europe by public transport. The country has cross-border connections with France via TGV. Paris is just two hours away by train. It is also connected with Germany via high-speed ICE trains.

Trains run from Luxembourg City to Brussels in Belgium every hour and to Liège every two hours.

Residents living in border towns also benefit from the free transport scheme.

“This allows all border residents, especially those from Belgium, Germany and France, to travel easily,” says temporary worker Gauthier Moumkama. “And in addition, it is a good form of freedom. We don’t have this in France. There are fewer controllers, there is less hassle.”

However, since the scheme does not apply across the border, its positive impact on mobility is limited to those who can afford to live in the world’s richest country.

“There are many people who live outside Luxembourg who cannot afford housing and who also have to pay for transport,” says Gillard. “So it’s redistributive but only to a certain extent.”


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