Luxembourg Is Making Public Transit Free to All

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Landlocked and melting pot-ish, Luxembourg is known for its high GDP per capita and EU institutions. It also suffers chronic traffic jams. (Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite its diminutive size of 998 square miles, the Grand Duchy Luxembourg isn't short on abundance. Sandwiched between Belgium, France and Germany, the multilingual constitutional monarchy boasts an abundance of financial institutions, an abundance of cultural influences, an abundance of fairytale castles and, regrettably, an abundance of terrible traffic.

In fact, traffic congestion in Luxembourg City, the capital and largest city, ranks among the worst in the world due largely to the fact that a significant percentage of the workforce commutes via car from neighboring countries. It's a uniquely vexing quandary faced by one of the world's wealthiest nations — a place where wages are high and unemployment is low (added bonus: short work weeks) but where there's also a dearth of affordable real estate.

As reported by The New York Times, the number of cross-border employees commuting into Luxembourg City each day from France, Germany and Belgium tops 180,000 and continues to grow steadily. This figure is greater than the population of the city itself, which hovers around 114,000 residents and is three times that of Luxembourg's second largest town, Esch-sur-Alzette. (The population of the entire country is just shy of 600,000.)

"It's basically like a city that has suburbs abroad," Oliver Klein, a researcher at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research, explains to the Times.

Traffic jam near the border of France and Luxembourg
A large number of daily commuters to Luxembourg City, a major European banking and business hub, come from Belgium, Germany and France, and this fact has led to major gridlock. (Photo: Jean-Christophe Vergaegen/AFP/Getty Images)

If Luxembourg City were to ever require an unofficial motto, "Luxembourg City: Make Good Money, Live Somewhere Else (And Sit in Traffic While Doing So)" would be an apt contender given that a 2016 study found that motorists spent an average of 33 hours stuck in traffic, ranking 134 on a list of 1,000 global cities.

To further add to lamentable traffic in the capital city, the Rhode Island-sized nation already has a higher number of cars per resident — 662 cars for every 1,000 inhabitants — than any other EU member state followed by Italy, Malta and Finland.

Now, in direct response to the country's mounting gridlock and the greenhouse gas emissions that come with it, Luxembourg's incoming coalition government lead by newly reappointed second-term Prime Minister Xavier Bettel has announced plans to do away with public transit fares. The ticket-free switch-up will commence next summer with the hope that the move will translate to dramatically fewer cars on the road in Luxembourg City and beyond.

A fare-free world first

Although numerous European cities including the Estonian capital of Tallinn and Dunkirk, France have done away with fares on different modes of public transit, Luxembourg will be the first country in the world to make all forms of mass transit free to all, including non-residents. (Estonia is currently experimenting with nationwide free transit but on a more limited scale.)

Luxembourg's heavily subsidized transit system includes a dense national railway system run by Chemins de Fer Luxembourgeois as well as local and national bus services operated by a handful of different privately owned entities. Luxembourg City is also home to a reintroduced tram service that, when fully completed, will consist of 24 stations connecting the bustling capital to Luxembourg Airport as well as a few outlying villages. Light rail is also in the works and there's even a sleek urban funicular that links a tram stop with a train station in the hilly, gorge-carved town.

Luxembourg's considerable wealth and dainty size help make transitioning to fare-less mass transit on a nationwide level all the more easy. So is the fact that hopping on a train or bus within the country 1 billion euro system is already affordable compared to most places.

As Quartz details, all-day rail passes cost just 4 euros ($4.60) with 2-hour passes costing half of that. Essentially, public transit users can travel around Luxembourg in its entirely within a two-hour period. What's more, Luxembourgers under the age of 20 can access public transit for free thanks to a recent transit ordinance also established to help curb chronic traffic congestion.

In total, revenue from ticket sales covers just 3 percent of the 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) annual cost involved with keeping Luxembourg's buses, trams and trains up and running. This makes doing away with fares altogether somewhat of a no-brainer. By eliminating the costs associated with fare collection and enforcement, the move becomes even more enticing from a savings standpoint. Per the Independent, any revenue shortfalls incurred by the nixing of transit fares will be made up for in part by discontinuing a tax break for commuters.

Bus in Luxembourg City
A festively striped bus on the streets of Luxembourg City, an oft-overlooked tourist destination with excellent food, a UNESCO World Heritages Site-listed old town and plenty of atmospheric charm. (Photo: Fränz Bous/Flickr)

Congestion: A side effect of Luxembourg's high standard of living?

It will be curious to see how effective abolishing transit fares will be in putting a dent in traffic directly correlated with the number of cross-border commuters coming in and out of the country each day to work in Luxembourg City. The biggest potential impact, it would seem, will come from an increased number of local trips being made by public transit rather than by private car.

As CityLab's Feargus O' Sullivan notes, the fact that Luxembourg's incoming government has also pledged to legalize recreational marijuana by 2023 makes the idea of opting for a short, scenic and soon-to-be free train ride all the more appealing. The progressive coalition also plans to boost the monthly minimum wage while introducing two new national holidays.

These two worker-friendly maneuvers could, however, lead to more congestion by attracting a greater influx of car-dependent daily commuters from neighboring countries and, theoretically, negating any gains made by the free transit scheme. Time will tell if that's the case.

The backfiring boons of better pay and slashed work days aside, some Luxembourgers are preemptively fretting over a decline in the quality and dependability of public transit service due to increased demand once fares are abolished. Honestly, it's hard to see that happening in smooth-running Luxembourg. And in addition to questions about whether or not rail class compartments will be a thing of the past, there seems to be particular concern about fare elimination leading to an uptick of homeless people taking to trains during the winter.

Others question how significant the emissions-reducing environmental benefits of fare-less train, tram and bus travel will ultimately be when considering that public transit in Luxembourg is already affordable or completely free to some.

Luxtram, Luxembourg City
Luxtram, a sophisticated modern tram for an equally as sophisticated city, debuted in Luxembourg's capital at the end 2017. Currently, the single-line system has 11 stops. (Photo: Patrick1977Bin/Flickr)

"I'm not sure if making public transport free here in Luxembourg will take more people out of their cars," Claude Moyen, a school teacher who already commutes by train to work each day in the northeastern town of Diekirch, explains to the Independent. And he does have a point. While an entire country making public transit completely free is without question a massive deal, the actual impact it has on Luxembourg's car-centric culture could, in the end, be nominal.

A 2015 study issued by Friends of the Earth Germany the European Environmental Bureau ranking European cities based on their efforts to reduce air pollution gave Luxembourg City a failing grade of 53 percent. "As there are more jobs than inhabitants in Luxembourg, the city has a major commuter problem," reads the report. "Accordingly, it has one of the highest percentages of car users in the European Union. The resulting problems contribute to Luxembourg being the lowest ranked city in this comparison." City authorities subsequently challenged the report, saying it was flawed and filled with incorrect data.

Whatever the case, every car taken off the road — be it 100 or 100,000 of them — is an improvement. It's also wise to start out small when implementing such radical ideas on a national scale — and in Europe, you can't get much smaller than Luxembourg (save, of course, for a few really tiny sovereign microstates).

Here's hoping the country's fare-eliminating ambitions rub off on its larger neighbors.