Rushing commuters pour from Luxembourg’s vaulted central train station out towards waiting trams and buses, their doors sliding open for the flow of people to board. There is no pause to swipe cards, pay fares, or pass ticket gates, because for three years now public transport in the landlocked European country has been free.
“In Luxembourg in the beginning I would say the population was more sceptical, especially the trade unions,” says Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister and mobility minister François Bausch, referring to concerns back in 2020 that ditching tickets would lead to job losses that weren’t ultimately borne out.
“But now everyone is enthusiastic. Nobody would be in mind to go back, because the population find it so easy to use a train, a bus, whatever, because they don’t have to think about a ticket. It’s much easier if you can jump in without any restriction.”
This has long been one of Europe’s most car-dense countries, with a passenger car ownership rate of 681 cars per every 1,000 inhabitants
Luxembourg was the first country in the world to introduce nationwide fare-free public transport for its population of 640,000 people, and the initiative is being closely watched across Europe as governments seek strategies to reduce private car use and shift transport systems towards environmental sustainability.
This has long been one of Europe’s most car-dense countries, with a passenger car ownership rate of 681 cars per every 1,000 inhabitants, a level well above the EU average and Ireland’s rate of about one car for every two people.
Almost half of the working population of the country are cross-border commuters who travel in from neighbouring countries, often by car, which can cause traffic to snarl around the picturesque capital at rush hour.
Ticketless transport was presented by the government as a way to reduce traffic as well as increase social equity.
Deputy prime minister Bausch described it as just one small part of a much larger overall strategy of investing in infrastructure and rethinking the transport system with the aim “to move people, and not any more vehicles”.
How much does it cost? The public transport system was always substantially funded by general taxation. Prior to the change, annual ticket sales raised €41 million — nowhere near covering the public transport system’s overall costs of about €800 million.
Funding for the transport system in general, including road maintenance and building, comes from progressive income taxation as well as levies on petrol and gas.
As the country shifts towards decarbonisation, this may have to change, Bausch said. “In the future, we may have to think about introducing something like a transportation tax,” he said. “You have different possibilities, that’s also a big discussion.”
Dr Veronique Van Acker, a research scientist at the Luxembourg Institute of Socio-Economic Research who studies travel behaviour, explains that it is difficult to measure the before-and-after effect of the policy.
It’s really difficult to see what’s really the impact of free public transport on people’s travel behaviour, and are really car users shifting towards public transport— Dr Veronique Van Acker
That’s because two weeks after public transport became free in February 2020, Luxembourg went into Covid-19 lockdown, causing a collapse in passenger numbers that only gradually recovered in the following years. Since then, public authorities also rearranged the bus network, changing commuter patterns.
“It’s really difficult to see what’s really the impact of free public transport on people’s travel behaviour, and are really car users shifting towards public transport,” Van Acker says.
She doesn’t believe a shift away from car use is taking place, however. “Because it takes much more than just offering free public transport.”
When Luxembourg residents were surveyed about the policy prior to its introduction, they stated that other factors than ticket costs were more influential in whether they would choose to take public transport or not.
“Price wasn’t the most important thing,” Van Acker says. “It’s frequency, reliability, punctuality, accessibility.”
A significant proportion of Luxembourg’s population already had access to age-based free travel or were provided with season travel tickets as a company perk before 2020.
The experience of switching between multiple buses and trams makes clear that a lack of tickets makes complex journeys with many changes more seamless and appealing
Back then, an all-day ticket covering buses, trains and trams cost €4, while a two-hour all-inclusive pass was €2, prices that are far lower than other neighbouring EU countries.
Nevertheless, the experience of switching between multiple buses and trams makes clear that a lack of tickets makes complex journeys with many changes more seamless and appealing. There is less fear of missing a connection, and there is a sense of freedom to jump on and off different modes of transport.
But often, travel apps show that making the same journey in a car would take half the time. A shift to public transport won’t take place until that is rebalanced, according to Van Acker.
“Car use is very, very cheap, and if you don’t start changing that at all, it is so easy to get into your car and drive to your destination.”