31 January, 2019

An Afterword on Free Transit in Luxembourg

under the Red Bridge, Luxembourg City (photo by Carr)
Earlier this month, we published an article in ‘The Conversation’ on Luxembourg’s decision to introduce free public transit for everybody in the spring of 2020. Shortly afterwards, the government (the Minister of Transport himself) confirmed that the measure will be effective as of March 1st, 2020 — even though there are a couple of open questions that still need clarification beforehand  and will cost about 41 million Euros annually. All the while, our article continued to generate further media coverage both locally in the Luxembourger Wort and internationally at the BBC (revealing, too, that the attention economy can shower benefits not only politicians but academics as well).

In our contribution, we aimed to make two critical points: On one hand, we wanted to provide a general comment on the weakness of the free public transit measure, since we believe that it is far too over-simplified a concept given the wicked nature of the problem. Price is only one of many factors that explain, trigger, and determine modal choice. In his instructive overview, Annema (2013, 112) concluded that ‘empirical research worldwide shows … that the responsiveness to price changes is fairly modest in most cases’. Keeping a complex issue short: this means that pricing alone is not likely to spark major changes in travel behavior, and thus remains largely neutral to the overall transport system. Is it then worth such an expensive attempt?

On the other hand, we mentioned three further arguments considering how free transit could be even detrimental to the health of the transport system, apart from the weaknesses mentioned before. First and foremost, there are dozens of million Euros to be spent (btw, for something that nobody asked for …) that will most likely have no visible impact systemwide. This means there is real money lost that cannot be used for more urgent measures, such as good bike networks, or a better protection of pedestrians. Second, a rush of passengers to a crappy system would disappoint many people and make them lost for alternatives to the motor car, which are actually much needed. Third, most seriously, free buses have potentials to cannibalize walking and biking (instead of reducing car travel, i.e. if the latter is not constrained…). As a consequence, such measure is neither good for the transport system, nor would it have a positive impact on the environment. It could even mean the opposite.

One may also spend a few thoughts on the “social” dimension of the measure – the soundtrack with which the whole decision is now being sold to the public, as other arguments are proving less convincing. However, a social benefit could only be expected in the event that public transport fares are deepening social inequality. Unfortunately, statistical data is lacking on this issue, as transit is not included in the official consumer-price index, unlike cars or petrol. However, the factor that is most effective in creating inequalities (and also most rapidly increasing in this respect) is obviously the housing sector. So, if the government would like to undertake effective measures in combating inequality, it is rather clear what sector would come into play here. Hence, one may ask: What’s the problem? What political action is needed?

Governance lesson to be learned
Many of the points above were also the reasons behind the wide spread critical views on free transit about two years ago when it was discussed in the Grand Duchy – a discussion that included decision-makers who are now proposing the measure. Why and how have things changed since then? The answer to this question is most likely related to the policy process, and it looks as if the various ways this measure has been treated politically sheds some light on peculiar governance patterns and practices – politics “made in Luxembourg”. In this case, one could surmise the following: 1) politics prefer proposing solutions over examining ‘real’ problems; 2) it is more important to create an imaginary to sell good news, than it is to be stuck in ‘wicked’ problems; and, 3) issues are easily driven by the most powerful governance authorities from above, which in small states usually implies the central government.

Concerning the first point: There is a certain tradition in this country, in terms of planning and building policy, of discussing a solution before the nature of the problem has been identified. To name these spatial planning problems that are specific to Luxembourg: It is a small but fast-growing archipelago, which brings a striking mismatch between size and function to the fore, quite visible by the unbalanced relationship between the number of residents and that of workplaces. However, taking a closer look at such real problems would necessitate proposing measures that are either overly complex or that would go against vested interests (or both). This makes the search for complex, interdependent strategies actually inconvenient for policy makers – who seek to be judged as power people who are good at implementation. In this context, professional politics seem to be more inclined to stick to PR and the symbolic. Concerning the second point: It is fantastic to see how the imaginary is circulating and changing the message! This seems to be a paradigmatic case of policy mobility, or trans-local policy.

Would you like some evidence? Look at what the Minister confirmed in his press conference (according to a snippet from the local Luxemburger Wort, 22nd January): “We don’t expect an increase in the number of passengers to occur. The free ride is primarily a social measure, a cherry on the cake which yet needs to be baked.” On the same day, the international press (in this case the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, see the second snippet) confirmed another narrative: The government aims to ease congestion on commuter trunk roads and reduce transport related air pollution. These are not only two entirely different messages (in circulation), they implicate different strategies and scales of impact. The mere rise of the number of transit users is an immediate, primary, goal. Achieving such a comprehensive, system-wide result is a secondary goal and would require associated changes in other transport modes (such as mitigating the motor car and the like). So far, this is unlikely to occur. However, it can be said that the imaginary worked well, in order to spread good news about the famous country.



Luxembourger Wort, January 22, 2019

Regarding the third point: in a press-conference, the Minister unintentionally confirmed that the nature of decision-making and governance practice in this country is primarily state-centred. When questions from the press turned to local bus services, the response was that the municipalities would, of course, remain autonomous and retain the power to choose to either continue with charging for transit use or to follow the central government’s proposal. It came out that the capital city, whose bus service is probably carrying a large portion of daily transit customers in the country, was not consulted by the government before it announced the policy scheme. To long-time observers of governance practices in the Grand Duchy, this looked like pretty common business-as-usual policy-making.


Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, January 22, 2019

The flawed and unconsidered way of decision-making does not do well in presenting the measure as well-considered. In this sense, the measure was actually rather populist (in a more critical meaning of the term), because it potentially discredits institutions and their ability to deal with genuinely complex problems. It is post-political– not in the sense that civil society would take over responsibility from institutions in charge, but given the lack of a clear, balanced but effective framework of analysis, intervention, and evaluation. However, it is not politically neutral: It is riding on the surface of media and public perception, and thus has some geo-political underpinnings (see Kȩbłowski et al. 2019).

Besides ticketing details and this and that, the actual lesson to be learned from the whole story, for Luxembourg as well, is that the free ride takes the country to the screen of the international press, but does not bring us closer to a robust, appropriate strategy and practice for getting around.

References
Annema, Jan Anne (2013): Transport resistance factors: time, money and effort. In: Van Wee, B., Annema, J.A. & Banister, D. (eds.), The Transport System and Transport Policy, p. 101-124. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.


Kȩbłowski, W., Tuvikene, T., Pikner, T. & Jauhiainen, J. S. (2019). Towards an urban political geography of transport: Unpacking the political and scalar dynamics of fare-free public transport in Tallinn, Estonia. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 2399654418821107.

Similar articles at Urbanisation Unbound:

Hesse/Carr (2018) The post-politics of offering free transit
Hesse, M (2018)  Another tale of large-scale urban planning: The quandaries of mobility into and out of Campus Belval
Carr, C., Lutz, R., Schutz (2018) There is no one human scale - Reflections on urban development practice in Luxembourg
Hesse, M. (2018) Come, let’s watch a film and discuss cities!!

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