07 December, 2018

The post-politics of offering free transit

In a blog entry posted earlier this year, we provided some background information on, and context to, the mobility quandaries that are associated with Luxembourg’s new Science City and Belval Campus. Since then, nothing has actually improved. In fact, things have gotten even worse, given the various road blockings, construction projects, and general transit chaos organised by the set of transit infrastructure providers in the area. All of this renders the seamless journey into and out of Belval even more difficult than before.

On that note, and more as a joke, we also referred to some of the fantasies that were circulating during the summer election campaigns, where some political parties were promising free public transit across the entire country should they win the national election in mid-October. Now, after the new coalition government comprising the blue (right liberals), red (apparent socialist) and (light) green governing parties has agreed upon a new agenda for the coming five years, and the ministers have been sworn in, it’s all there: Free transit will be introduced across the whole country by some time in 2020. The news on this decision then spread across the planet, with massive media coverage in outlets such as the Guardian’s international edition, the New York Times, the BBC, Forbes, Time Magazine, other broadcasts across Europe, North America, Asia, and Australia, and in different languages. The news even reached Bernie Sanders who congratulated the Grand Duchy on its (apparent) accomplishment, which has already received 13,000 likes on facebook.

Yet, the perception of free transit is as divided as the view on our shiny new Belval Campus: While visitors from abroad are struck by the architecture and the urban design, those who have to commute to Belval and inhabit the offices for work every day have a different view. In the light of the cold and windy setting of the urban fabric that lacks green space, offers overpriced commercial outlets, and leaves little to nothing for people to self-organise (Gaart Belval remains one of the few examples), the pre-fab character of the site is only topped by the building, property, and infrastructure management that usually appears rigid, random, and not particularly devoted to users needs.

Likewise, that Luxembourg should receive such vast international (not domestic) praise as the second country (not the first!) worldwide after Estonia to implement free public transit nationwide is rather irritating to those who are actually using the system on a daily basis. A small reminder here as well: Luxembourg is, indeed, a country, but it is also a de facto city-state, whose urban agglomeration spans three borders. Admiration of its nation-wide free transit as if this were any kind of beacon to other countries around the world is thus blown entirely out of proportion. But more to the point, fees are clearly not the problem – not in an admittedly small (and wealthy) country where you can travel from the Belgian to the German border for just 2 Euros, buy a daily ticket for 4 Euros, or invest in a subsidised annual pass for less than 200 Euros (which many of us are using). The problem lies in the recent socio-economic evolution of Luxembourg, in its structural framework conditions, and in the state of transit provision which an evaluation of 'poor' would actually be rather generous.

These issues were already outlined in an earlier blog-post last June, so there is no need to be overly repetitive. However, in a nutshell there are three factors that come into play here. Firstly, there is the rapid growth of the country that has recently added 100,000 people to its population every eight years, while annual GDP growth has steadied at 2-4% for some time now. Secondly, many infrastructures (including roads, rail tracks, stations and rolling materials) are already in a critical state, meaning that catching up with these growth rates is almost impossible to achieve. Thirdly, it is the path dependant, old-school organisation of transit provision and the really poor customer dedication that make the daily commute definitely not fun (which might be too high an expectation). Effectively, it is a mess, very slow, and completely unreliable.

In the light of these deficiencies, should we really care about fees? No, of course not. What will happen when transit will be offered for zero? Here, the public transit system will quite likely become even more crowded and dysfunctional. And, as soon as the free riders notice that it doesn’t work, they will be lost for change. Many will decide instead to get into their cars, because they are simply faster and more reliable. Those who can't afford, are unable, or are simply not a fan of driving, will be punished further. Free transit also tells a delicate political story, in two parts. Firstly, the 40-60 million Euros per annum that will need to be compensated by tax-payers will also be collected from cross-border commuters, who, by the same token, won’t benefit significantly from the last penny-free mile into or out of Luxembourg. More crowded trains and buses will make their journey even more difficult. Thus, the society’s divide between foreign and autochthon might only be further reinforced.

Secondly, it is no coincidence that the idea was not born of the (green) transport minister – who is against it, as his party is as well. Suspiciously enough, the proposal came from the Prime Minister, whose political party has the least affiliation to public services, rail and transit across the political spectrum: The right-wing liberals. And, they probably just weren’t aware what they were doing. One can assume that they have little experience with the local trains and busses, because one might otherwise expect a more convincing set of proposals to improve the system as a whole. However, this would necessarily mean going against the vested interests of automobilists, a risk that liberals are never prone to take. (Also, on a more non-scientific note, it is curious that the announcement of free transit came alongside the legalization of cannabis, which was proposed by the same government accord: Is there a reason that the two are brought together?).

So, free transit in Luxembourg is not a recipe that others ought to copy and follow. It can run a system to its death that is already beyond its limits, thus revealing that the priorities set in the political realm are more or less going wrong. And, the verve with which Luxembourgers now appreciate the global media attention that their small country has received triggered by the free transit ticket, provides a further indication that this idea was, from the very beginning, not conceived of in order to solve real-world problems. It was a political stunt whose purpose was purely about media coverage and PR – a sort of, “mobilities of nation branding,” if you want. From this perspective, it was a brilliant stroke.

This impression coincides perfectly with a recent reading of Crystel Legacy’s (University of Melbourne) nice paper on ‘The post-politics of transport: Establishing a new meeting ground for transport politics,’ published in 2017, in the Australian Geographical Research. By referring to the earlier works of scholars who observed a drying out of the political caused by managerial policy-making, she addresses post-political governance environments described as ‘a situation in which the political– understood as a space of contestation and agonistic engagement– is increasingly colonised by politics– understood as technocratic mechanisms and consensual procedures that operate within an unquestioned framework of representative democracy, free market economics, and cosmopolitan liberalism’ (Wilson & Swyngedouw, 2015, p.6).

In such contexts, free transit is nothing more than a post-political pill that pretends to do good and is easily sold to the rest of the globe, while all the wicked, real world problems of getting from point A to B and back again remain unsolved. Reacting to the international media that has praised and fawned over Luxembourg in the past couple of days: i) the framework conditions in the Grand Duchy and the Greater Region urban agglomeration are really challenging; ii) the current state of the public transit system is the backlash of three decades of ignorance and non-action in the transport and infrastructure domains; and last but not least iii) the addiction to the motor car that makes small but powerful Luxembourg look increasingly like SUV-country is far from overcome. Free transit will not lead to improvements in terms of functionality or sustainability. And, if the price is not the problem, then the rest must be tackled first. But this less appealing bitter pill, would neither make the headlines nor place the country spotlight of the global media.

And now for a couple of factual corrections to the errors that were circulating in the international press (see statistiques.public.lu):
- There are no 400k commuters swarming into the City of Luxembourg; rather, there are approximately 422k work places, total, across the Grand Duchy;
- The population of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is 602k as of 2018;
- The population of the City of Luxembourg is 116k as of 2018 - By day, the influx of workers employed in the City roughly doubles this population;
- The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg receives a daily influx of 192k cross-border commuters from the border regions of Germany, France, and Belgium.

Markus Hesse and Constance Carr

See also
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!! 

Some further, relevant, publications of ours
Krueger, R., Gibbs, D., Carr, C. (2018) Examining Regional Competitiveness and the Pressures of Rapid Growth: An interpretive institutionalist account of policy responses in three city regions. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space
Caruso, Geoffrey; Gerber, Philippe; Hesse, Markus; Viti, Francesco (2015). Editorial: Challenges, specificities and commonalities of transport research and policy within the BENELUX countries–the case of Luxembourg.European Journal of Transport and Infrastructure Research (2015), 15(4), 501-505
Carr. C. (2013) Discourse Yes, Implementation Maybe: an Immobility and Paralysis of Sustainable Development Policy. European Planning Studies. 22(9), 1824-1840.


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Unknown said...

Interesting reading, confirming the old saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch! To make drivers switch to public transport, it's only quality that counts.