17 March, 2020

Fare-free public transit in Luxembourg - An afterword

While the world is in turmoil because of a virus, let’s recall what happened just two weeks ago, when the world was (perhaps) a world away: the introduction of fare-free public transit (FFPT) across an entire country, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, on 1st March 2020. We were swamped by it.

Back in December, we noticed that we were receiving, pretty much on a weekly basis, calls or E-mails from the media, colleagues abroad, or student groups doing research on the issue. The inquiries were a result of two articles that we had published – one in ‘The Conversation’ (2019) and another in the Journal Transport Geography (2020), which is available upon request here. Some readers might also have been reacting to our first initial reflection that we posted here, shortly following the government’s announcement and ensuing media storm in 2019. As the much celebrated 1st of March approached, however, these weekly contacts increased in frequency, to a point where we were doing several interviews inside of just (and only) a few days. On one hand, this attention was a surprising story about impact: We interrogated discourses, attempted to decipher the politics and the political behind the policy measure, and embed it into the context. Who would have thought that our pen could be so mighty as to generate such attention and sway the debate?

Media Exposure

To sum up the media events that have unfolded since January of this year: We were contacted by Radio 100,7, the Swedish Dagens Nyheter, the Belgian BTRF, the Swiss SRF, the Berliner Tagesspiegel, The Independent in the UK, the BBC World Service, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, Italy's La Repubblica, and probably the most influential of them all with his 2 million followers (at least with younger generations) Youtuber TomScottGo. We were not able to respond to all the calls. In some cases, it was sufficient to simply send articles that we had already written. (So, it is a good idea to have a publication to buttress a position, and it can never be assumed that journalists have done their homework). The University of Luxembourg’s communication office was also involved, helping direct media attention to the appropriate contact point within the University, and providing spontaneous assistance and advice about how to handle the media (Thank you Laura!).

In addition to the above, RTL, science.lu, Le Quotidien, the Tageblatt, all reported on, or took inspiration from, our article in the Journal of Transport Geography, and there are uncountable replicators of all of the above, such as The Global Herald, WikiNews, Bangal Viral, Go Tech Daily, and who knows what else. In tech terms: Our voices, and our faces, were summoned into the light, to orbit online platforms…

For sure, it was a lesson in journalism: We got first-hand insight into the different objectives and methods of journalists, the depth of journalism (and, to be honest, the equally often  lack of it), the working world of quick and dirty journalism that co-opts and transfigures a message. One notable example was how the RTL jumped the word “populist” above all else – a term that we used only once in our article. 

Critical debate brings things forward

Yet, on the whole, the media was very supportive. Most journalists appreciated an opportunity to get the fuller picture, from insiders with some critical distance to the authorities. They were, after all, tasked with making sense of FFPT in imagery as opposed to FFPT in reality, and this is where we came in. Providing a reflection upon policies based on intimate knowledge of the cases at stake, without having a stake in it, can be considered one of the key aims of critical scholarship. 

And if our point was about discourse, framing and branding, maybe the most striking issue that we noticed was the difference between Luxembourg's self-perception and description on the one hand, and observations and judgement from a distance on the other. It is interesting to see that the government’s claim about what its actual intention was (from steering mobility behaviour to providing a social benefit) was completely overrun by the foreign media's perception that there would be an ecological turn in transport and mobility unfolding in Luxembourg. This perception certainly found applause in the government, and was never denied by the authorities who were grateful of the global media spread. If one learned about Luxembourg's FFPT via the media only, one would come to the conclusion that Luxembourg was spearheading the coming transport revolution. This would be awesome, of course, if only it were the case …

The overall positive aspect resulting from this attention was observing how the public and scholarly debate moved forward. In this respect, it is an example of how a scientific, double-blind peer-reviewed, journal article managed to change understandings of a certain phenomenon. In terms of public debate, the ideas that we list in our papers partly became mainstream thought.

Indeed, there were strange discussions cycling about. Some assumed that critiques of FFPT are automatically pro car. We also received a personal message, from someone of a far-right bent who dug up our one comment about populism, and used it as an opportunity to doublespeak and point the finger at democratic parties (this is when the 'delete' button comes in handy). Some ventured that critiques from science are a sign that state funding is a waste (insinuating that comments from the scientific corner ought always be palatable). It is surprising that what these perceptions missed was the fact that a critique of FFPT can be, in fact, not only pro public transit, but also pro public service.

The accomplishment, one might venture nonetheless, was that there a greater understanding was achieved: (a) the public transport system is in dire need of investment; (b) housing prices are a real social problem here; (c) transport is also labour issue. Yet, at the same time, we were also tied up in a weird figure-eight between scholarship, media, and politics — all missing the political. (One might note, too, that the media attention also served as a diversion, occluding more important global issues).

Most importantly, one could ask what will happen now that the March 1st fanfare is over and the media has packed up and gone home. Won't it most likely be a return to business as usual – long commutes, cancelled trains/busses, etc?

FFPT in a nutshell
The following is a list of key questions that a foreign media representative addressed. We use them here to summarise our position.

1) Why do you think free public transit is not a good idea?
Surely the role of politics isn’t be simply about providing gifts to the public, but about taking care of present and future issues and, most notably, addressing problems. Transit fares have never been a problem in this country. No one ever complained that they couldn't use the public transport because they couldn't afford it (which is probably different from many other places). FFPT in Luxembourg was a solution that lacked an underlying problem, a policy nobody had actually asked for. For that, the government is ready to spend EUR 41m/year.

2) Is there something specific about Luxembourg that makes the idea wrong?
Yes. The whole socio-demographic and economic trajectory is hugely specific. Luxembourg is de facto a small city-state formation run by central government, while the building and planning authorities sit with 102 municipalities. It seems extremely difficult to find a common sense between the two levels of governance (see Carr's paper here). Growth rates are extremely high by European comparison, effectively the capital city and its suburbs are like a sponge, attracting not only capital for investment and admin, but also 200,000 commuters from neighbouring countries per workday. For decades, the country was used to building roads and paving the way for cars – such as the Plateau Kirchberg, an economic zone in the centre of the country that that had a motorway built directly to it, connecting to the border regions. This habit has only been changing recently. So, the government is right in what it's doing in transport infrastructure terms, but: a), the investment numbers that are provided for comparison are an expression of backlog of need, not head start on infrastructure planning; and, b) its economic development policy – paradoxical as this effect turns out – will contribute to making the sponge even bigger. It thus deepens the real problem. FFPT has nothing to do with these issues, and it can make things even worse if cyclists and pedestrians should switch to transit, causing low-carbon mobility to lose traction.

3) Luxembourg seems the perfect place – small country, small population – to be a laboratory for mobility. Is it not true? What is necessary?
This case is far from being well suited for this; hence, we would not recommend that other countries take inspiration from here. The reasons for this is because Luxembourg is: a) so specific in its socio-economic and political-economic setting, and b) rather traditional in its obsession with the car, roads and motorways. Territorial size or population counts do not mean that public transit automatically works. When asked what is needed, we find following three elements. First, get rid of existing subsidies for corporate cars, petrol and diesel that promote toxic travel modes. Second, calm car traffic towards the benefit of pedestrians and bikers, children etc. and for safe environments and public spaces. Third, designate bus lanes to improve transit flow, and pursue the effective changes that can be implemented in the fastest possible ways for immediate impact. Fourth, address tact, increase frequency and improve reliability. A cancelled train that would arrive only once every 30 minutes anyway is hardly indicative of a reliable system. And, most connections do not make sense, meaning that many changeovers take 30-45 minutes meaning ridiculous time investment for riders. All these discussions, however, are far from political mainstream.

4) What else could one try to make significant improvements to public transit and mobility?
Inevitably, government and society will have to tackle the dominance of the car. There is no real alternative to this. Then, all other transport modes would benefit from that. In the long run, the social spatial imbalance between Luxembourg and its neighbour countries needs to be re-adjusted, as does the internal mismatch between the capital city and the rest of Luxembourg. Admittedly, there is no easy fix for the underlying dilemma to be expected from whatever measure in short term. The setting of economic and socio-demographic growth, local governance (and governmentality) and the resulting spatial imbalance is extraordinarily complex and can only be addressed by mid- and long-term political strategies. However, such strategies do not offer the immediate revenue that the governing parties would like to see materialising.

5) What do you think about the experience of free transportation in other countries/cities (Tallinn, Dunkirk in France…)?
These may also be pretty specific. While having never been to the places mentioned, it is difficult to make a proper statement about this. FFPT seems to be an issue that may suit for smaller not bigger spatial units. Large countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands or metropolitan regions such as Berlin haven't considered such a measure, for good reason: a) They need the fares as an important budgetary component; and b) they focus on quality, for which continuous and expensive investment is required. In many countries, rail and transit infrastructures need to be renovated or upgraded – either to catch up with economic and demographic growth or to implement transit-oriented development, or both.

Constance Carr and Markus Hesse

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